Don’t look now, but the Utah Jazz might be really good. Not many outside #BasketballTwitter saw this coming, and few people are actually watching the Jazz (they will go 20 games before landing on national TV), but they’ve won four straight and have the fourth-highest net rating in the league, behind only the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers. At the middle of the team’s success is 24-year-old center Rudy Gobert.
Gobert — a true seven-footer who defends the rim with impressive consistency — has been one of the best defensive players in the NBA for the past couple seasons. He’s the guy that makes the Jazz defense click. Gordon Hayward is a fine defender when he’s engaged and Derrick Favors holds his position down, but neither are top-notch stoppers. The Jazz traded for George Hill this summer to shore up the perimeter, but even with the addition there are no other standout defenders on the team. Because of Gobert, they still have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA.
The Jazz funnel everything toward Gobert when he’s on the floor (they allow three more points per 100 possessions when he’s off it). They are allowing 22.7 three-point attempts per game, the second-fewest in the league, because opponents are being run off the line. As a result, Gobert is contesting 10.1 shots at the rim per game and opponents are converting just 40.1 percent, per NBA.com’s tracking data.
(Side note: I don’t want to dive into this too much, but Gobert has earned the right to enter what has been a two-horse race for Defensive Player of the Year between Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. He ranks in the top five in defensive rating, Win Shares, Box Plus-Minus and Real Plus-Minus — something neither Leonard or Green can claim — and has just as much, if not more, responsibility than either of them.)
Gobert’s defensive powers have been well documented, but the Jazz needed more from him on offense. Gobert at times last season was frustrated about his lack of a role on offense, and head coach Quin Snyder stressed setting better screens so that he may get more opportunities, per Aaron Falk of The Salt Lake Tribune:
“In the offseason and during training camp, Coach really put an emphasis on my screening,” Gobert said. “… I think it’s very important for the offense. If I set a screen and my teammate is wide open, I’m happy the same as if I would score.”
Gobert is second in the league with 5.8 screen assists per game, behind only Marcin Gortat (who gets to screen for John Freaking Wall). He’s showing greater patience, doesn’t rush to get off his block and has developed into one of the better screeners in the NBA:
It’s not just simple pick-and-rolls, either. Here, Gobert is asked to set multiple screens. His screen on Ryan Anderson forces Clint Capela to come out of the paint to pick up Boris Diaw, and Gobert has a lane to the rim. James Harden is the lone help defender and, well, I mean:
With Hayward, Hill and Favors missing multiple games this season, Gobert’s screening has been a constant and he’s been rewarded. He’s setting screens from multiple angles and, here, comes from the weak side of the play to set a back screen that leads to a wide-open dunk:
Gobert is averaging more than 10 points per game for the first time in his career on a tidy six attempts per game while shooting 63.4 percent. The offense is hardly built around him scoring, but his screening creates open looks for teammates.
Gobert is not a member of the Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis unicorn club, so his ceiling is relatively limited. He doesn’t shoot from further than arms-length from the basket and isn’t a particularly adept passer. While his screening does loosen up the defense, opponents have plenty of time to send help toward him because he won’t be hoisting up jumpers reliably any time soon. This could become an issue in the playoffs when defenses get better. Gobert probably needs to develop some sort of mid-range game — like a Duncan-esque bank shot — to keep teams from ignoring him until he’s five feet away from the rim.
But that can come with time. Gobert is young and, for now, he’s mastering the things he’s already good at: becoming one of the best rim protectors and rim rollers in the league. Because of injuries, Gobert, Hayward and Hill have only played in five games together. The Jazz are outscoring opponents by nearly 27 points per 100 possessions when those three are on the court. If they can stay healthy, Utah’s best basketball is still ahead of them.