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On the night Rudy Gobert found out he would be headed to Utah, some acquaintances helped paint an unflattering portrait of Salt Lake City in his mind.
"Some players that I won't mention told me it was one of the worst cities in the NBA," Gobert recalled on a recent afternoon. "Boring. Always cold. Ugly."
As it turns out, Gobert has found his new home quite hospitable.
The rest of the NBA, meanwhile, is learning that the area around the basket is anything but with Gobert around.
It's been ugly.
The worst place to be.
And as the Utah Jazz kick off the season Wednesday facing the franchise's highest expectations since Jerry Sloan roamed the sidelines, Rudy Gobert is getting ready for a long year.
Maybe you've seen Gobert on the wrong end of a "SportsCenter" highlight. He's been dunked on by Damian Lillard and Andrew Wiggins, to name a few.
These moments are simply occupational hazards.
Meanwhile, maybe you've felt an arena shake or heard through your television the gasp of admiration a packed building, home or away, makes when Gobert does what he does best.
"Most of the blocks happen on a layup or pretty easy shots, or supposed to be easy shots," Gobert said. "The crowd thinks they're going to score and, at the last moment, you come and you block it."
Maybe you know him by one of his nicknames: the Stifle Tower, the French Rejection, the Gobstopper, Gobzilla.
Still just 23 years old, Gobert is mastering the art of the swat. The 7-foot-1 Frenchman boasts a 7-foot-9 wingspan and a standing reach that, flat-footed, leaves his finger tips a mere three inches away from the rim.
Maybe you saw some of his work from his sophomore campaign. Last season, no big man caused opponents to miss shots at the rim more often. Only New Orleans forward Anthony Davis, widely considered to be the best young talent in the NBA, blocked more shots (200) than Gobert (189). He needed roughly 300 more minutes on the court to do it.
If the Jazz are going to get back to the playoffs this season, Gobert will have to be ready to do it all again this year.
The big man in the middle believes he's ready. "I want to be one of the best defensive players in the league."
Maybe you're still unfamiliar with Gobert. Maybe you are not one of the thousands of fans that chant his name "Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!" after spectacular plays or salute him (his signature big-play celebration) when you see him around town.
So let's play a little catch-up.
Gobert was born in France and grew up about two hours outside of Paris in Saint-Quentin. His father, Rudy Bourgarel, was a 7-foot center at Marist College in New York in the late 1980s and went on to enjoy a long professional career in France, but never pressured his son to play his game. Instead, a young Rudy Gobert tried his hand at karate and later boxing until, at age 11, he circled back to the game his father loved.
Gobert had some skill, too. At 13, he was selected to attend an academy about an hour away from his hometown. His weekdays were filled with schoolwork and basketball, and he returned home only on weekends. At 15, he was invited to try out for a spot at the prestigious program INSEP, France's national institute of sport, that helped develop the games of Tony Parker and Boris Diaw, both stars in the NBA.
"Supposedly the best of a generation go there," Gobert said. "They didn't take me."
At the time, Gobert was a wing player, still a year away from a major growth spurt.
"They said I wasn't ready physically, mentally," Gobert recalled. "There's always mistakes. Nic Batum [who now plays for the Charlotte Hornets] didn't get picked. Many guys who did probably now play in the fourth division in France or don't play basketball at all anymore."
Gobert, to the chagrin of opposing offenses, is still playing.
But how he arrived in Utah involved some mistakes, too.
Jazz make a steal
Early in the draft process, Gobert had been projected as a lottery pick near the top of the draft. But after two years of playing for the French pro team Cholet, Gobert had a poor showing at the scouting combine.
In individual workouts, like his workout for the Minnesota Timberwolves against hulking Steven Adams, now with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was overmatched by bigger, stronger centers.
His stock slipped and Utah was able to buy low.
Earlier on draft night 2013, the Jazz had traded up to grab point guard Trey Burke with the ninth overall pick. Now they needed a deal to get back into the first round to snatch an intriguing big man prospect.
Thirty years after former Jazz owner Sam Battistone sold Dominique Wilkins for $1 million to save the franchise, the Jazz decided to spend. Owner Gail Miller and her family signed off on a deal that sent $3 million and a second-round pick to Denver for Gobert, the 27th pick in the draft.
Gobert hasn't made the deal look like a bargain. He's made it look like a steal.
Maybe you remember Gobert from his up-and-down rookie season, when he looked awkward and lost at times on the court, or when he was given a ticket to more than one unwelcome trip down to the D-League.
Maybe you recall that a year later, Gobert burst onto the scene, surprising pundits and Jazz executives alike, and demanding more playing time not in post-game news conferences but with his inspiring play. Gobert made his case early that he deserved to be a starter. After disgruntled big man Enes Kanter made his trade demand just before the deadline, Gobert soon got his chance.
The Jazz were the best defense in the NBA after that, and Gobert earned serious consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.
This time around, he'll be a favorite.
"Once they cleared space for Gobert to man up the middle … they were phenomenal," TNT analyst and former player Brent Barry said. "Talk about Rudy Gobert being Defensive Player of the Year is more than justified."
The hype is here
There are lofty expectations for the Jazz this season, and inside the locker room there are lofty expectations for Gobert as well.
"I expect him to pick up from where he left off last year … being one of the best defensive players in the league," Jazz forward Gordon Hayward said. "He's more than capable of doing that. For Rudy, it's a mental thing, it's a focus thing. If he's focused, sky's the limit."
Gobert has struggled at times during the preseason, but finally put together a signature performance in Thursday's exhibition finale against the Nuggets, finishing with 14 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks.
"I just wanted to show my teammates I was ready for the regular season," Gobert said.
Said Jazz coach Quin Snyder: "I believed in him last year and I believe in him this year. He knows that. But that doesn't mean you can't hold him accountable and tell him the truth. The great thing about Rudy is he wants that."
The Jazz chalked up his early struggles to fatigue and getting reintegrated into Utah's schemes after spending three months this summer playing in a different system with the French national team.
Maybe you were concerned.
Rest assured, Gobert and the Jazz were not.
It's not that Gobert is simply too big to fail; it's that he's too driven.
"One thing is I love to win," Gobert said. "Maybe sometimes too much. Maybe sometimes I'm too real. I take things too seriously. … Maybe sometimes I take things too seriously and I should relax, but that's how I am."
And that's one of the reasons Gobert has come to love Salt Lake City, too.
With two years left on his rookie contract, he envisions himself sticking around and making life miserable for opponents long after that deal is up.
"To me, it's all about winning," he said. "Of course I've got to feel good, and I feel good here. I don't need all the flashing lights and stuff. They probably have more in L.A., but to me it's about winning.
"We've got a good coach and we've got a good group, so why would I want to go?"
Because he can make it worse.
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About Rudy Gobert
Position • Center (7-1, 245 pounds)
Age • 23
Hometown • Saint-Quentin, France
Drafted • 27th overall by the Denver Nuggets in 2013 and traded on draft night to the Jazz for cash and a second-round pick.
2014-15 averages • 8.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks
Need to know
• Gobert spent more than half of last season (45 games) coming off the bench before claiming the role of full-time starter after the trade deadline.
• His 189 blocks were the second most in the NBA last season and the 12th most ever by a Jazz player.
• More than just blocking shots, Gobert was the best rim protector in the league last season. According to the NBA's player-tracking data, opponents shot just 40.8 percent at the rim when Gobert was there to defend.