This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Not many saw Rudy Gobert coming two years ago, which is why his ascension from a project to an intimidating defender was noteworthy and a little shocking.
Last season wasn't bad for the Jazz big man, either. He was one of the league's rebounding leaders with 11 per game. He supplemented that production with nine points and 2.2 blocked shots per game. It was a solid season as far as the stat sheet was concerned.
Yet, something was missing. The defensive dominance wasn't there every night. The 7-foot-1 Gobert was a deterrent at the rim, but opponents weren't terrified to drive the ball, like they had been previously. Then the Jazz center got hurt, and missed a chunk of the season. The Frenchman also went through personal trials after seeing both Paris and Nice absorb large-scale terrorist attacks. And, of course, the Jazz missed the playoffs.
After making a big splash on the scene, 2015-2016 wasn't the encore Gobert envisioned.
"It was a good experience to go through, but it was disappointing we didn't make the playoffs," Gobert said recently. "Some things I couldn't control. I got hurt, I came back. It was tough, but we learned a lot of things. I would say every game matters. You can't take any game lightly, especially when you miss the playoffs by two games. Everything matters."
Coaches and teammates have noticed a change in Gobert.
Always fun-loving in the lockerroom, he hasn't been quite as gregarious as he had been previously. Gobert has always been serious about his craft, about winning, and about his desire to get better as a basketball player. During this preseason, though, he has taken his focus to another level.
"You can see that his attention to detail is there," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "Rudy doesn't just want to be a good player. He wants to be a great player, and I think that's showing so far."
Gobert isn't shy about his goals for this season. He wants to be a leader on and off the floor. He wants to be good individually. Most importantly, he wants to win. The way the Jazz ended last season ate away at Gobert during the summer. He spent the offseason wondering what he could have done to elicit a better outcome for his team. He told himself that he never wanted to experience the feeling of going home early again.
"I want to be a guy who sets the tone defensively this year," Gobert said. "I want to be one of the guys that people look to."
With that resolve fueling him, Gobert went to work this summer. Yes, he played for France in the Olympics. But he passed up the qualifying tournament, instead staying in Salt Lake City for much of the summer and working out.
On the court, he worked tirelessly with his coaches, in an attempt to add different skills to his offensive game. He has lived in the weightroom, adding muscle to his upper body. More importantly, Gobert has worked hard to add strength to his legs, which he hopes will help prevent injury.
Through two preseason games, some of the differences are clear: Gobert scored 10 points and grabbed 13 rebounds on Monday against the Portland Trail Blazers. Against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, he was even better, scoring 21 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking three shots.
His developing skills within the game might be most encouraging. Gobert made 13 of his 14 free throws against the Suns, a facet of the game he has struggled with. He scored one of his baskets by making a 10-foot floater. He's stronger and more explosive going to the basket.
He's still struggling to catch the ball. But, hey, he's got to leave some room for further improvement. Right?
"We think he's back to his old self," Jazz forward Trey Lyles said. "You can tell he's spent a lot of time in the offseason working on his game and his body. He's taking more of a leadership role with the team. It's something you have to decide to do in your mind, and Rudy's doing it."
Gobert's contract status has been the topic of much speculation, although he insists he isn't worried about it. The center's agent and the Jazz front office did talk over the summer about a new deal. There is no agreement in sight, but Gobert has publicly stated he wants to remain in Utah. If he doesn't reach an extension before the season, he will become a restricted free agent this summer.
"Both sides are not in a hurry right now," Gobert said. "There's trust between us and the Jazz. If it doesn't happen this season, it will happen in the summer."
Opp. Min. Pts. Reb. Blks.
Portland 22 10 13 0 Phoenix 28 21 10 3
Jazz at Clippers
P Monday, 8:30 p.m.
TV • NB TV