Traditionally, the impact of star players in the NBA jumps off the screen.
Whether it’s Karl-Anthony Towns scoring 60 points, Luka Dončić blending scoring and playmaking at the highest level, or Giannis Antetokounmpo gliding down the floor for a monster dunk or rejection, All-NBA players typically pop in ways that few athletes in other sports do.
Once you move past the clear-cut stars, a common phrase you’ll here is for everyone else to be “a star in your role.” It seems pretty self-explanatory. The true stars on a given team handle most of the playmaking and scoring, while the surrounding players fill in the gaps to complement them. Jarred Vanderbilt was a great example of this last season for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Around a star (KAT), Vando’s job was to insulate Towns on the defensive end of the floor and crash the offensive glass, which he did very effectively.
What about the middle of these two, though, or maybe a fusion of the two mostly cut-and-dry roles on a contending team? Can a player struggle so mightily at the things we typically associate with being a “star,” yet be so dominant in all the other areas that their overall impact on the game is that of an All-NBA caliber player?
You better believe it, because that is exactly what Rudy Gobert does, year-in and year-out. It’s part of what has made Gobert a punch-line on #NBATwitter for several years now. He’s so good at some highly important skills, that his overall impact has earned him three All-Star appearances, four All-NBA team selections, and three Defensive Player of the Year award honors. Those accolades speak for themselves.
It is also true, though, that his deficiencies have come back to haunt his teams in the playoffs, specifically at the offensive end. We always think of “getting played off the floor” in the playoffs as a defensive thing for Bigs, but for Rudy, it’s been about his inability to punish switches in the post against a smaller player. When you have a player who has earned his way to a slew of accolades, that is deficient in a glaring way exclusive pretty much only to him among that select group of “stars,” that is fuel for the jokes.
That brought out the defenders of Gobert’s talent, mostly from Utah Jazz media/fans over the last several season.
Guess what, everyone, that’s us now!
In a classic “didn’t like him until he’s on your favorite team” move (hi, Pat Bev!), it is now our duty to remind the people how good Rudy Gobert is. If we won’t stick up for the Stifle Tower, who will? It’s up to us to do what we do best and lean all the way into this one.
Since Gobert’s impact comes in ways that aren’t quite as obvious as a Jayson Tatum side-step 3, let’s all get on the same page and quickly break down what makes Gobert a truly great basketball players.
This is Cheering for Rudy Gobert, for Dummies.
If you ever questioned MY commitment to Rudy Gobert, I’ve just given up on my lifelong dream of making an appearance on the Lowe Post. Host Zach Lowe has (facetiously) banned those who use the phrase “screen assists” to talk about Rudy’s impact. For those who aren’t familiar, a “screen assist” is counted when you set a screen in the pick-and-roll that leads to the ball-handler making a shot. Consider me banned. How brave of me!
Anyways, without singling anyone out in particular, we’ve seen how poorly set screens can hurt an offense. Whether it results in a defender easily staying with the ball-handler or an offensive foul, a poorly set screen is a seemingly minor mishap that has a real, negative impact on an offenses effectiveness and fluidity.
On the other hand, making solid contact on a screen without fouling brings a massive boost to an offense. Not only does it potentially leave the ball-handler open for a shot, but it forces a defense to start to rotate. It creates an advantage for an offense, which is the name of the game. There is nobody better than Rudy Gobert at setting up the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll action.
After a go-ahead Italy 3 off an OREB, France needs a bucket.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) September 15, 2022
Gobert re-screens after minimal contact to free up Fournier for a wide open floater to re-take the lead.
You didn't think I was gonna get through this without a screen assist, did you? pic.twitter.com/OCL8VXRHnL
The Jazz have been a lethal PnR team for several years now, and while part of the credit absolutely belongs to the likes of Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Joe Ingles, a good chunk of the credit also belongs to Gobert. He hammers defenders on screens, as mentioned above, but his ability to “space” the floor without being a competent shooter outside of three feet is also a big reason why their style of play worked as well as it did.
This one is pretty simple. When you are 7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, as long as you have decent feet and passable hands, you should be a dominant lob threat. That’s exactly what Gobert is. He’s just so big and so long that he is capable of getting to a lot of passes in the air that his defenders are not. Throw the ball up above the rim, and let Rudy come down with it.
Aside from the obvious way that an alley-oop gets your team two points, it also helps the spacing on offense. While Gobert is a non-shooter in the same way that Vanderbilt was, he is five inches taller than Vando with a wingspan that’s eight inches longer. V8 was not a lob threat from a standstill around the rim, and he has a tough time catching dump-off passes in traffic, so defenses felt comfortable helping off him in the dunker spot. It is much harder to help off of Gobert in the same area because he makes himself available as a lob threat from a standstill. It’s maybe not as effective of a spacing tool as an elite movement shooter, but it nonetheless helps the offense in its own way.
France got lucky w/ FTs, but Rudy helped paid it off.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) September 15, 2022
Two Italian defenders are so concerned about Gobert as a lob threat that they give up an open, game-tying layup.
Polonara stared down Gobert from the screen and Melli backed away expecting a lob.
HUGE upgrade in dunker/PnR pic.twitter.com/HioOti7Vr2
Rudy Gobert is a generational defender. Of that, there is little doubt. What can make it harder to see in real-time, though, is that a lot of what makes Rudy so dominant defensively is what does not happen when he is on the court, compared to flashier plays.
In general, the number one tenet of every defense is trying to limit the amount of shots they give up at the rim. Nobody is better at that than Rudy Gobert.
With Rudy Gobert on the court, Utah Jazz opponents took 24.8% of their shots at the rim last season.— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) July 13, 2022
With Gobert off the court, Jazz opponents took 32.6% of their shots at the rim.
That -7.8% on/off differential in opponents’ rim frequency ranked #1 among all NBA players. pic.twitter.com/SZrGbUQKQC
Don’t get me wrong, Gobert still averaged 2.1 blocks per game in 2021, good for third in the league. He’s an elite rim protector when opponents do challenge him, but it’s just as important for your defense to limit those shots altogether. This is a case of Gobert’s value showing up in what does not happen when he’s on the floor.
Are any of these attributes as sexy as a 40-point game? Of course not, and that disparity shows up more in the playoffs than it does during the regular season. Thankfully, the Wolves have more options on offense take care of the scoring and playmaking aspects of the game in those settings, which in theory should free Gobert to just be himself.
That’s what makes Gobert so interesting. He’s not a “star” in the traditional sense, but he routinely makes the impact of one. No disrespect to Donovan Mitchell, but at least as far as regular season success goes, the data is pretty definitive about who the driving force between Utah’s wins machine was.
3 season sample size emphatically disagrees that Mitchell is the reason they're good.— Anthony Doyle (@Anthonysmdoyle) August 11, 2022
This isn't "analytics" either, before you come at me with that. This is literally "what happened". That's all this measures. https://t.co/3uxIvI47ap pic.twitter.com/6JWgUgpHQe
Rudy Gobert isn’t a traditional star, nor is he just a role player. He breaks the mold of what a star or role player is by being outstanding at the little things, which consistently adds up to create a massively positive impact on his teams. You’re not going to see him taking step-back 3s, but you are going to see him help the Timberwolves win a lot of games.