With the dramatic emergence of Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz have ample reason to be excited for what’s to come…
With nine and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Utah Jazz already leading the Houston Rockets by 17 points, the game all but over, Josh Smith drove in the lane in a moderately pathetic imitation of James Harden. Smith rose up for some kind of floater, when suddenly there arose in the painted area the outstretched arms of Rudy Gobert, a menacing presence like the steel of the Eiffel Tower, who swatted the shot away. Elijah Millsap grabbed the rebound, started the fast break, but ran into trouble at the other end, as a solitary defender guarded the rim. Millsap turned around and, ahead of the other seven players on the court, Gobert was sprinting as if evading a tiger. Millsap dished. Gobert flushed. Game over.
The big man from France finished with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 22 rebounds and four blocks. He has posted double-doubles in four of his last five games. In three of his last five games, he has blocked more than three shots. You should also note this fact: he’s just 22 years old.
The Utah Jazz should be excited. Not just about Gobert—although, game by game, it’s impossible not to be dazzled by the Frenchman. Consider the following about Utah.
The Jazz have gone 9-2 since the All-Star break. It’s not just the number of wins that have startled everybody, nor the fact that their two losses came by a combined four points; it’s the teams they’ve beaten. In this torrid streak, the Jazz have bounced Western Conference powerhouses Portland, San Antonio, Memphis and now Houston. You can probably count the people who would’ve predicted those four wins on one hand.
Gordon Hayward is proving his worth. Utah gave Hayward a fat contract last year (by matching the big offer sheet handed out by Charlotte), and many, myself included, were a little skeptical. But Hayward, just 24 years old, is proving himself worth the investment—at least so far. He’s posting a PER higher than 20, averaging 19.7 points, 4.2 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game. Just as important, he has shown tangible improvement after last year, shooting the ball four percent higher from the field and seven percent—seven percent!—better from beyond the arc. He has become more judicious in his shot selection.
The Enes Kanter trade worked some frontcourt magic. Trading Kanter accomplished three tasks in one move. First, it rid the Jazz of an uncomfortable—I won’t say “toxic,” like I would about the Reggie Jackson situation in OKC prior to the trade deadline—situation, as Kanter and coach Quin Snyder weren’t exactly best of buddies. Second, it freed up some money, as the Jazz wipe away a contract. And third, it has allowed for the blossoming of Gobert, which in turn has led to the reemergence of Derrick Favors, whose play has been no less impressive than his frontcourt counterpart.
Youth and financial flexibility. Moving forward, the Jazz have a young core around which to build. Led by Hayward (24 years old), Favors (23) and Gobert (22), Utah also has deals with injured-but-recovering guard Alec Burks (23), teenager Dante Exum (19) and Michigan product Trey Burke (22). Of that nucleus, the Jazz have contracts of all six players through the 2016-17 season. The one minor concern appears to be Burks, who’s missing the season after shoulder surgery and who, after having signed a big contract, disappointed substantially. Nonetheless, the youth and financial flexibility is there—especially when keeping in mind the salary cap, which is about to skyrocket. Utah may have not been a major player in the last several years for some of the league’s sexiest free agents, but their front office has meticulously built this roster and has positioned it well for the future. As stacked as the Western Conference is, I really believe Utah has a chance to compete for the playoffs as soon as next year.