NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addressed the future of the All-Star Game in North Carolina and the issue of resting marquee players.
USA TODAY Sports
When Rudy Gobert takes the floor at Oracle Arena on Monday, he won’t be thinking about the Defensive Player of the Year award that he could win or the first-team All-NBA slot that might come his way, too.
No, the Utah Jazz center will be thinking much bigger than that: He’ll be dreaming of a way to unseat the Golden State Warriors as Western Conference champions en route to winning it all.
“I feel like we’ve been getting better and better as a team every year, and we’re going to keep (working) the same way and obviously the goal is to win the championship,” Gobert, whose Jazz (49-31) are fifth in the Western Conference, told USA TODAY Sports by phone recently. “You know, people look at me crazy when I say I want to win a championship in Utah, but if we keep improving the way we (have) we should win pretty soon.”
Behold the NBA’s boldest big man, the 24-year-old from Saint Quentin, France, who stands 7-1 with a 9-7 wingspan and never met a proclamation he didn’t like. Ask him about the defensive honor that will likely go to either himself, the Warriors’ Draymond Green or back-to-back winner Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs, and he’ll give you a detailed answer as to why no one makes more of an impact than he on that end. Bring up the Bill Russell comparison that runs the risk of being sacrilegious, and he’ll pound the point about how they share the same defense-wins-championships credo. Mention how he played such a big part in the Jazz being on the verge of their first playoff appearance since 2012, and you’ll hear about his plans to take it even further by winning the title that those Karl Malone and John Stockton teams never could.
As special seasons go, Gobert — who left home at the age of 13 to play professionally in France and joined the Jazz by way of the 27th overall pick in 2013 — has one of the best going. He leads the league in blocks (2.67 a game) while ranking fifth in rebounds (12.8), and his offensive production (14 points a game) and efficiency (66.4% shooting) put him in unprecedented territory, according to BasketballReference.com.
The only other players to record at least 14 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks per game on 60% shooting were Dwight Howard (18.3 points on 61.2% shooting, 13.2 rebounds, 2.8 blocks per game for the Magic in 2009-10) and Artis Gilmore (18 points on 62.6% shooting, 12 rebounds and 2.3 blocks for the Spurs in 1982-83).
Not bad for a guy who didn’t even know Utah had an NBA team not too long ago — let alone where Salt Lake City was on the map.
Gobert, whose 7-0 father played at Marist College in New York and in European professional leagues for a decade, had no exposure to the NBA during his early years. Even as a teenager, when basketball became his passion in large part because his father, Rudy Bourgarel, didn’t push him to play, Gobert would see Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal jerseys and wonder who those players were.
“You know, in France the games are all delayed, so I wasn’t watching any games, and it’s only later that I started watching at school on the computer, like the top 10s (highlight reels) and stuff like that,” said Gobert, whose Jazz are currently third in defensive rating (102.6 points allowed per 100 possessions). “And then, I was thinking, ‘That’s where I wanted to play and where I want to go.’ “
Four years in, Gobert’s willingness to work is his calling card. Far too many players fall short of their potential because they won’t do what it takes to grow their body and game on this level. But here’s Gobert, who saw minimal playing time as a rookie and worked his way through other Jazz big men before signing a four-year, $102 million deal last summer, making the difficult step from gangly project player to the most old-school of stars.
From Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey to coach Quin Snyder and on down, they’ve spent the past few years shaping Gobert’s body and his mind in the form of a modern-day Russell. The successful sales pitch? Dominate defensively as the Celtics legend did in his day, be a complementary offensive player and trust that collective success will make the individual effort worth it.
“The thing I liked about (Russell) is he was really about winning,” Gobert said. “He wasn’t necessarily always (worried) about his stats or the scoring. It was really about winning, and doing the things that matter to win championships
“I just wanted to keep getting better and better and better, and that’s just my mindset. … I’m not shocked at myself. I feel like there’s still a lot of room to get better.”
Follow Sam Amick on Twitter @sam_amick.