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Jazz benefit as Rudy Gobert's defense, confidence grow

Utah's 'Stifle Tower' is 2nd in league in blocks, 5th in rebounds

Scott Howard-Cooper

Teams are challenging him — daring him — less than a year ago.

“Oh, yes,” Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz said. “For sure.”

They’re learning.

“I think they’re just being smart,” Gobert said. “They don’t need to come and get their shot blocked every time, so they’re just thinking about it a little more.”

He is second in blocks, is second in Defensive Rating, fifth in rebounding and ranked in similar territory in confidence. Not because of his proclamation a few weeks ago that he is the best center in the league — what’s anyone in the conversation supposed to say? — not because he is a contender to make the All-Star game for the first time and not even because he has come faster farther than most any team would have imagined on Draft night 2013.

It’s that Gobert can see what opponents think of him. Talk about inspiring confidence: Twenty-four years old, a longshot to so much as make an NBA rotation as the No. 27 pick, in his fourth season but only the third with real minutes … and a lot of teams are tying to avoid him.

“I see that is a little different than a few years ago,” he said. “A few years ago they would just go in and try to score on me. Now they can know. Especially the good teams. Those teams know I’m out there so they’re either going to float the ball very high or keep going and try to get me out of the paint.

“When they drive and they see me, they know I’m coming. They’re either (going to) try to attack me very hard or try to pass the ball out to the floor. It’s the thing I’m learning. I’m learning not to try to block everything. Sometimes when I know it’s intimidating, just be ready for the rebound or be ready to make them take a tough shot.”

Never mind his confidence. It’s Gobert’s reputation that is really growing, a standing that could become especially relevant as the time nears to pick the rosters for the Feb. 19 All-Star game in New Orleans. (Players and select media members will now join fans in choosing the starters, coaches will still vote on reserves.)

Gobert is on pace for a third consecutive top-three finish in blocks per game and defensive plus-minus, a key part to Utah’s climb to 22-13 and No. 4 in the Western Conference. All this success comes after Gobert fell to late in the first round in 2013 and averaged 9.6 minutes in 45 rookie appearances. Then Quin Snyder replaced Tyrone Corbin as coach and immediately upgraded Gobert’s role, Gobert responded almost as instantly with the rate of stamping his palm print on basketballs heading for the basket. The nicknames rolled in, either playing on his roots in the north of France (“The Stifle Tower”, “The French Rejection”) or just playing (“The Gobert Report”, “Gobzilla”).

“The reality is he’s a player that’s getting better every time he plays.”

Jazz coach Quin Synder

The 26.3 minutes the first season with Snyder became 31.7 in 2015-16 and has climbed again to 33.0 in 2016-17. The long shot to so much as stick in a rotation from June 2013 has become a centerpiece of the defense for a team tracking to the playoffs while also first in the league in field goal percentage, albeit with limited opportunities.

“Rudy and I both kind of have a connection,” Snyder said. “We feel like we kind of have had a partnership from an early stage, when I threw him in the starting lineup midway through his second year — his first year with me — and believed in him. I still really believe in him. The biggest thing that I always try to tell him is just to not worry about what is going on externally and just to try to stay focused on what he’s doing in his improvement. There’s a reason for that. I think that’s why he’s improved so much, is because he’s been able to stay focused. Clearly Rudy’s got an enthusiasm for the game. I like that. I want it to be grounded in reality.

“The reality is he’s a player that’s getting better every time he plays. I don’t want him to stop doing that. I love that he is ambitious for himself and our team. The thing that people don’t realize about Rudy and that I would like for people to see even more, there may not be a more competitive guy as far as how he approaches his work. When I say competitive, he is individually, but within the context of the team. Rudy really wants to win. That’s the most important thing to him. When you get a guy that’s that committed and that ambitious and that dedicated, when you throw in the fact that they like winning, it’s a pretty unique combination and one that I’m grateful that I get to coach.”

And this is with Gobert still developing, as if early candidate for Defensive Player of the Year and not-so-early possibility for New Orleans in February isn’t enough at 24. He is heading in a very good direction, and the Jazz are heading in a very good direction. And everyone can see it.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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