Few players are capable of taking over a game on both ends quite like new Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert does.
Coming off an incredible, 20-point, 17-rebound performance featuring a game-tying put-back in the closing seconds of regulation in a win over Turkey, the Stifle Tower struggled to make a consistent impact in the first half France’s quarterfinal matchup against Italy, especially offensively.
But being the mature veteran he is, Gobert didn’t let a sub-standard stretch stand in the way of stepping up to the plate and answering the call as a one-man stabilizing force down the stretch of an elimination game.
First and foremost, his rim gravity (the spacing he creates with the threat of scoring at the rim) is incredible. He repeatedly forces defenders into precarious positions in pick-and-roll (PnR) with his activity as a screener.
Gobert wreaks so much defensive havoc above the rim that it creates downhill scoring chances for his guards looking to attack after turning the corner around a screen.
The impact of Gobert’s activity reveals itself over the course of a game. Whether he is slithering through the grass to pounce on a put-back chance, traditionally rolling to the rim, or sprinting to the block to back down a guard switched onto him, it wears on a defense. It puts him front of mind.
After allowing two straight scores to Gobert, former New Orleans Pelican Nicolò Melli, stays attached to Gobert instead of helping on Evan Fournier’s drive. Even if Melli helped, Fournier would’ve had an easy wraparound pass because Gobert settles on prime real estate in the middle of the paint.
This happened again on a fateful French possession. Both Melli (No. 9 in blue) and Achille Polonara (No. 33) are prioritize neutralizing Gobert over stopping the ball. Melli backs off because Gobert is in a great spot to put down a lob, while Polonara gets out of position as the low-man because he has tunnel vision on where Gobert from the moment Rudy sets the screen. This creates a wide-open, game-tying layup for Thomas Heurtel.
On the final possession of regulation, Fournier top-locks Simone Fontecchio, Italy’s leading scorer, with the assumption Fontecchio would get the ball. Knowing this, Gobert waits until the ball is inbounded to move off his position looking at the paint to make sure no one slips a screen to get to the rim. Once Gobert flocks to Melli, he is physical and shades to the middle of the floor, where he has help. This forces Melli to make a bounce pass further away from the basket, and thus a tougher catch-and-finish for Fonetecchio at that angle.
Overtime was more of the same for Gobert in terms of his impact.
Right off the bat, he gets prime put-back positioning deep in the paint. This forces Melli to stop defending the drive because he can sense Gobert is there. Easy money.
We all know how important the first bucket of overtime is. That first make was the sum of all the little things Gobert does throughout the game that makes the defender think twice about whether or not he’s defending a play correctly.
Next, Gobert displayed a good showing of calculated defense by allowing Melli — a 31.6% 3-point shooter in the NBA — to let one rip from well beyond the arc before hustling back to the rim for a rebound. Immediately after corralling the rebound, he parlays it into a well-set screen to tee up Heurtel (who shot 41.6% on 185 3s last season in Europe) for an in-rhythm 3.
Every. Damn. Possession.
Players often talk about locking in on every possession, but Gobert actually goes out and does it as well as anyone I’ve gotten to study in-depth.
The French Rejection forced a missed layup on the subsequent defensive possession, but his teammates couldn’t follow through with a board, leading to a go-ahead Italy 3; France badly needed a bucket to regain momentum.
So, Vincent Collet dials up his most fruitful action — a Fournier/Gobert PnR. I love the big man’s patience on the perimeter; he re-screens without getting over aggressive trying to make contact that can free up Fournier. He calmly sets a screen at a perfect angle, then fills the lane at a perfect angle. If you pause when Fournier rises, you’ll see Gobert is rolling to the rim without resistance. Melli doesn’t even contest because of the threat the four-time All-NBA selection poses on the glass.
Perhaps my favorite play in the clutch came when Gobert turned into a petty king. After dominating Melli for most of the second half and OT, Gobert picked up a phantom foul on the prior possession and was understandably irked. So, like any smart big would, he picks a fight with Melli in the post, gets under the Italian’s skin, and flops to foul him out.
I’m not an Italian lip reading expert, but I’m pretty sure Melli is talking about how great the Wolves are going to be this year.
While Gobert unfortunately let it get to his head on the next trip, and picked up an obvious offensive foul on a reckless charge, he regained his composure to make the game-sealing play.
He knows that his point guard may be able to throw it by the showing big and over the small defending him if he sprints down the lane after the switch. Even though Heurtel throws a poor pass, Gobert still collects it, makes a smart read and feed to a cutting (Boston Celtics legend) Guerschon Yabusele, only for Yabu to wildly toss up a “layup.”
Like he had all game, Gobert again executed a simple yet, extremely smart and impactful fundamental of crashing the glass in the game’s biggest moment, sealing a win for his home country.
The three-time All-Star finished with a 19 points, a game-high 14 rebounds, two assists, a steal, and registered a game-high +20 in a 34-minute masterclass of “The Little Things,” especially in crunch time.
Gobert accrued four points, three rebounds and an assist in overtime, on top of his six points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter.
Winning players separate themselves in winning time and that’s exactly what Gobert did.
The four-time Defensive Player of the Year in the face of adversity displayed exactly the value he creates for those on the floor with him, and his team as a whole.
In simple terms, he’s a near every possession player. His activity consistently creates advantageous possessions on both ends.
Offensively, that means more 5-on-4s after setting a screen for a guard in a ball screen action, and 2-on-1s as the handler enters the paint. As you saw above, he puts dropping defenders in hellish situations in which they are forced to choose the lesser of two evils, and often second guess themselves.
Gobert is capable of disrupting any single offensive possession for his opponents, too, because he has phenomenal defensive instincts and excellent recovery skills. That combination will elevate the Wolves on two levels.
First, it creates a larger margin for error for Gobert’s teammates. Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards will jump more passing lanes without fear of throwing away a defensive possession. D’Angelo Russell will play his preferred off-ball free safety position knowing he can send matchups into a baseline trap featuring a 6-foot-10 wingspan at one end and a black hole at the other. Karl-Anthony Towns will have easier reads as a rotating low-man on the weak side.
However, the underrated element of Gobert’s arrival is that he’ll be surrounded by a defensive infrastructure that can effectively weaponizes his Hall of Fame caliber skills without becoming dependent upon on them. Edwards is more effective at the point of attack than either of the turnstile twins, Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, while Russell, McDaniels and Towns insulate Gobert with more height, length and defensive playmaking than Gobert has ever had below the break. Not to mention they can still run the high wall —or utilize a switching concept more often now given the addition of Kyle Anderson — when Gobert is on the bench.
The other four Wolves starters will enable the most aggressive and impactful version of Gobert we’ve seen to date on both ends of the floor. That is a terrifying proposition to consider given he is already a four-time Defensive Player of the Year and a historically unprecedented two-way model of efficient impact.
Next up for Gobert and his France team is matchup with Poland on Friday at 10:15 AM CT in the EuroBasket semifinals. Fans can watch the game on ESPN+.