These days it’s often possible to divide the teams in the league into two groups: The ones that are tanking and the ones that want to contend. There is a small, third subgroup of teams that have been in the rebuilding phase for a while, have accumulated talent but are still not close to contention. Teams like the Magic and the Celtics exist in a limbo in which they have a lot of young players but not a defined core, no franchise-altering star. Among that group of teams, none is as interesting as the Utah Jazz.
After trading Deron Williams to the Nets, the Jazz went into a full rebuild. They let Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson walk away, rented out the cap space and decided to build through the draft. The often hidden danger of doing so is that in order to be successful you have to be bad the right year and nail the picks. For every success story like the Thunder, you have teams like the mid-aughts Bobcats who turned three top-five picks into Emeka Okafor, Raymond Felton and Adam Morrison.
In the last four drafts the Jazz have added four top-10 picks: Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Trey Burke and Dante Exum. It’s too early to make any definitive judgments, but it doesn’t look like there’s a franchise-altering star there. The other key young players — Derrick Favors and Alec Burks — are good but not superstars. That’s why in year four of the rebuild, the team is 16-29 and out of the playoff picture. The Jazz have generally gotten good value for their high picks but have not landed the transformational player they needed. That led to them holding off on forming an identity, which is paradoxically what starless teams need, as the Hawks are showing the league.
But Rudy Gobert could change that.
At one point Gobert was considered a top-10 prospect in his draft class. It’s hard to find 7’2″ bigs with his mobility. His drop in draft boards was surely linked to his lack of strength and polish but the upside was evident. The Jazz saw it and traded a second round pick and cash for him after the Nuggets selected him 27 overall. A year and a half later, it looks like they grabbed elite-level talent at the end of the first round.
Many have covered Gobert’s rise, most notably Zach Lowe of Grantland. What everyone agrees makes Gobert so intriguing is his potential as a pick and roll finisher and as rim protector, which makes him exactly the type of big man that is trending up in today’s NBA. Gobert will never be a post bully but he can run the floor, has soft hands and is nimble enough to catch, take a step and finish. On defense, Gobert is already a game-changer. When he defends shots at the rim opponents shoot just 37.1 percent, the best mark of the league by far among players who contest at least five shots a game. To put it in simple terms, Gobert has the potential to be the evolutionary Tyson Chandler.
What separates Gobert from other young players is that he’s producing earlier than anticipated and has an effect on the team’s play. He has one of the best net ratings of all Jazz players and the team is 1.6 points better with him on the court than off. Utah allows 101 points per 100 possessions with Gobert playing, over five fewer points than the team average. Opponents shoot just 42.9 percent from the field and a ridiculously low 51.7 percent close to the basket. When Gobert plays, the Jazz go from worst in the league to having the 10th best defense.
Players with a similar profile like Alex Len and Nerlens Noel went fifth and sixth in the same draft class as Gobert, and he is outplaying them. Sure, he’s slightly older but the difference in efficiency, rebounding ability and rim protection is startling. His finishing close to the basket is equally impressive, with his 68 percent on shot within five feet ranking him 10th in the league among players with at least 100 attempts. The only thing that is missing for Gobert to be considered and up-and-coming star is better recognition out of the pick and roll. Passing out of dives to the basket is still something that eludes Gobert, resulting in turnovers and limiting his potential as an offensive weapon.
The Jazz now have a defensive monster, a good two-way big man in Derrick Favors and a skilled wing in Gordon Hayward. That’s finally a core to build around. They can forge an identity as a defensive team that spreads the floor and takes advantage of the gifts of Gobert and Favors on both ends. With some incremental improvement from Favors as a mid-range shooter, there should be enough room inside for the two to play together and there’s always the possibility to integrate a floor spacer as the first big of the bench (think Boris Diaw on the Spurs or Spencer Hawes on the Clippers) so that they can take turns at center.
The challenge is to give up the dream of landing a star and start surround the core with the right supporting cast. Right now, the rest of the pieces don’t fit. The Jazz need elite three-point shooting around those three and Alec Burks won’t provide it. Burks is a reluctant shooter, never averaging more than 2.5 three-point attempts a game in his career despite converting shots at a decent rate. He’s simply too in love with his pull up, which could make him a good option as a shot-creating sixth man but not as a starter. Trey Burke and Dante Exum are young and could develop into decent shooters, but they are not a threat right now. And the “Enes Kanter, three-point shooter” experiment doesn’t seem to be panning out.
Either on the trade deadline or in the offseason, the Jazz will need to shop for a floor-stretching big to bring off the bench and a quality 3-and-D wing to start next to Hayward. One of those players could come through the draft, as Stanley Johnson and Kristaps Porzingis fit the profile. The Jazz are in no hurry to throw money to big-time free agents, not with so much youth on the roster. But in order to cement the identity that they seem to have stumble upon thanks to Gobert’s emergence, they will need some small but key additions.
Something very interesting is brewing in Utah. What it ends up becoming could largely be determined by the moves the front office makes next.