Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert is so much more than screen assists, rebounds, defensive plays the average viewer may not understand, and finishing lob dunks off of pick-and-roll. The three-time All-Star fundamentally changes the way defenses have to play and react while he’s on the floor.
However, the Wolves have struggled to fully unlock his offensive impact for the majority of the season thus far. Gobert willingly admitted he knows he hasn’t been himself on the court.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the best Rudy yet. I’ve been putting in a lot of work. My teammates are sticking with me. The coaching staff is sticking with me. And I know that it’s going to pay off,” he said following the team’s 128-115 win over the Los Angeles Clippers last week.
The work is evident. Now, Gobert’s teammates are starting to understand how he impacts defenses and how they can profit from it, and we’re beginning to see that pay dividends.
“That just comes with him. He does a good job of running the floor hard and that gets other guys buckets. It doesn’t show up in the stat sheet but that’s one of the things he’s good at and just him being down there ready to finish,” Wolves forward Kyle Anderson told Canis Hoopus in the locker room after the Clippers game.
“That can kind of open up some lanes for us to go score or guys to go make plays at the rim for themselves. I seen today I was able to bring the low man in because he rolled hard and was able to find Peezy in the corner. So just little things like that.”
Anderson’s example is just one of many ways the four-time All-NBA selection makes life easier for the other four players on the court.
Here’s a snapshot of how Gobert’s teammates have benefitted from his presence on the court during the team’s four-game win streak (small sample size alert!):
The key takeaway is that the Timberwolves have been dominant inside the 3-point line with Gobert on the floor. Every single member of the Wolves’ rotation is shooting at least 16.7% better at the rim and 8.3% better from inside the arc as a whole when they play alongside Gobert compared to when they don’t.
“We emphasized getting to the rim. That’s where we start with our offense. Rudy has unbelievable gravity, whether he’s rolling or he’s down there. People are reluctant to leave his body, opens up opportunities to get to the rim,” Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch told Canis Hoopus after the win over Los Angeles. “We have a bunch of guys, I think Kyle does a really good job of getting down, getting to the rim, too. And Ant’s shot selection has been great, in terms of getting to the rim.”
For the season as a whole, the Wolves have been worse at finishing at the rim with Gobert on (69.5%) versus with him off (70.1%), per PBP Stats. Their at-rim shot rate with the Frenchman is slightly better (34.8%) than without him (34.3%), but not much. Both of those marks are well-above the league averages and place the Wolves in the top-five league-wide.
Both areas are much improved on this win streak, particularly with the team’s three main ball-handlers: Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell and Anderson. In this sample, each player has increased their driving frequency, at-rim shot rate and at-rim FG%.
While the team’s 2-point shot rate has increased overall since Karl-Anthony Towns suffered a right calf strain on November 28, its 2-point FG% hasn’t.
Generally speaking, the Wolves play better when they shoot better on their 2s (61% in wins vs 56.3% in losses). However, they have a lower 2-point FG rate in wins (61.2%) than they do in losses (63.8%). This is largely a function of how well they shoot 3s (38.4% in wins vs 30.7% in losses). When they shoot poorly from 3, they then move in and start taking mid-range 2s or contested 2s inside rather than trust their shot profile.
So Minnesota’s winning recipe isn’t necessarily to take more 2s, it’s that they need to work to get better 2s. Thankfully for Wolves fans, the team has been doing a much better job of that, because they are beginning to see the effect Gobert can have an a defense when the ball gets moving.
“Guys have benefited from Rudy’s gravity all year. And now, we’re able to create other things out of it rather that just something for the ball-handler. That was probably the biggest thing we were able to do, have the ball-handler get a decent look,” Finch continued. “Now we’re finding Rudy, now we’re finding the kick out, or now we’re finding the lead play, all that stuff.”
Here’s a good example of a basic play. Gobert sets a good screen so that it forces Norman Powell to lose his balance trying to get back to Anderson on the ball. As a result, John Wall digs hard from the corner to buy Powell enough time to get back in a good guarding position. Immediately after Wall does that, he checks his peripheral vision for Taurean Prince, but sees Gobert in the lane before realizing he has to recover to Prince behind him.
Next, we’ll see some more low man manipulation.
Jaden McDaniels’ natural instinct is to cut rather than to space to the corner, which is a good thing because it opens driving lanes for others. But here, he realizes that the cut isn’t there because Gobert is rolling on the opposite side, so Jabari Smith Jr. — the low man here — is in the paint. He has to be, because if Edwards dumps it off to Gobert, it’s an easy dunk. McDaniels reads this perfectly, so he flares out to the corner.
Edwards sees four defenders with their feet in the paint, but instead of trying to make the hero pass to McDaniels by himself, he hits Prince, who can make a much easier extra pass against a poor x-out from the Rockets’ defense.
That play is a good mix of how Edwards and McDaniels are growing their offensive games with the aid of Gobert’s gravity. Let’s tee up another example.
This is a simple PnR with Gobert, but Terance Mann does a good job forcing the former No. 1 overall pick to reject the screen and drive baseline, where Mann has help. Edwards doesn’t want to risk throwing a pocket pass through traffic to Gobert, so he gives a little hesitation move. This creates two scenarios: 1) allow Gobert time to roll and open a better vertical passing lane, or 2) force Ivica Zubac to commit. The latter happens, which forces forces Marcus Morris Sr., the low man here, to fill in and defend Gobert, leaving McDaniels with an easy dunk.
A key aspect of the Wolves’ improved offensive efficiency of late is baseline driving.
You’ll see this setup is similar, because forcing drivers baseline was part of Clippers Head Coach Ty Lue’s game plan to protect against Gobert killing them as a roller in PnR. The Wolves smartly took what the Clippers gave them and created off of that.
In this play, Russell takes one hard dribble towards the baseline before slowing down to see how Moses Brown reacts. He sees that Brown is above the restricted area defending Gobert, so Russell fills that open space. What makes the play, however, is Jaylen Nowell’s cut from the slot. As Russell sees that open space, so does Nowell. Amir Coffey sees Nowell cutting, so he commits to Nowell on the dump off. At the time he makes this pass, you can see how bent out of shape the LA defense is.
All McDaniels needs to do is catch and shoot.
“We got so much talent on this team and when the guards are getting to the paint with the mindset of kicking it out to those corners or kicking out to the big, then we put the other team in closeout situations, then we can drive again and everything is open. We draw fouls, catch and shoot threes, which, for us, is much higher percentage shot. And it’s fun,” Gobert told Canis following the win over the Clippers. “It’s fun for everybody and then I feel when we play that way, defensively for some reason, we’re just more connected. Communication is higher, intensity is higher and we’re just better.”
“Our spacing has always been more fluid than static. We really value movement and cutting, and just like getting to those spots and filling those spots. We look a lot more comfortable doing that, just reading each other, like where we’re going,” Finch said in response to a question about how the offensive spacing has improved of late. “It’s not like, just static pick and roll, diver, creating some distortion, everybody knows where they are. That’s creates spacing, too, but that’s not really how we play. So I think so. It feels like people just kinda know what they’re doing a little bit more out there in terms of playing off each other.”
To Russell’s credit, he has been fantastic lately at getting off the ball so that Anderson, McDaniels, Prince and Edwards can all create out of the corner. That corner offense has been an accelerant for ball movement and, in turn, the team’s best offense.
Finch has done a great job of using Gobert to create advantages for wings that set up in the corners.
First, Anderson calls out a pay to get McDaniels a double-drag screen off the ball, which flows into a Gobert on-ball screen. Kevin Porter Jr. gets screened three times in the span of five seconds, creating a ton of space for McDaniels to get off a clean look.
Then, it’s Gobert himself who wants this play called. He sends Prince to the corner so that he can set a pin-down for Prince to curl off of. With Gobert rolling hard, Prince can either throw a lob to the three-time All-Star or hit McDaniels on a dump-off.
“Offensively, the sky is the limit for him,” Gobert said after the Clippers game. “But when we play like that as a team and we move the ball, he’s able to shine because he’s spacing the corner, he’s cutting, he’s crashing the boards. He’s so talented that he makes all those things look easy.”
While Finch may not be calling out those plays directly, his influence is still felt.
These are random plays that make the best use of his players’ talents. Anderson (or Russell) is an organizer; Prince and McDaniels can shoot if defenders go under or attack if their matchups die on the screen; Gobert is a vertical lob threat and excellent screener; and Edwards can be used as a decoy or second-side driver if the play breaks down. Plus, when Karl-Anthony Towns comes back, this will be a fantastic way to use combine his shooting, driving and playmaking talents.
Randomness is perhaps the most important aspect of Finch’s offensive philosophy. And it is safe to the four-time All-NBA selection had an adjustment period. But now, Gobert is routinely finding ways to screen for his teammates to create open shots within the flow of an unscripted offense in a half-court setting.
That has stimulated better ball movement.
“For sure, and I think a lot of it is just me playing with more force than I’ve done earlier in the season. A lot of it is the way we play by moving the ball,” Gobert told Canis Hoopus about his teammates gaining a better understanding of how to play off of him. “Those last three games, I think the best stretch we’ve had just moving it and sharing it. That’s a team that we want to be and when we play that way, everyone shines. It’s really, really tough to guard.”
Although Gobert isn’t a 20 PPG scorer or isolation scorer on the block, he is a wonder for the offense because of the diverse manner in which he makes the game easier for his teammates. So, when he is able to score, either on put-backs or through set offense, it makes a big difference. Because the Wolves are still struggling to get him the ball, they’ve gotten creative with ways to get him the ball, like they do here.
With creativity comes counters for how defenses protect against it. In this next clip, the Wolves try to do the same thing, with a slightly different setup. Instead of a player setting up in the slot, Rivers is spaced to the corner. McDaniels sees Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ready to help on a Gobert entry pass, so the third-year swingman cuts behind the play.
Something that has become more and more clear to me in recent weeks is that Gobert also has a very good understanding of spacing for a big whose only function on the perimeter is a screen-setter and hand-off playmaker.
Here, the big man notices that two Rockets go with Anderson on the drive, so he doesn’t crash to the paint and get his teammate trapped at the block. Instead, he stays high around the nail, which keeps Kenyon Martin Jr. out of the paint. This enables Anderson to drive baseline for a kick-out to McDaniels. Gobert only dives once Anderson clears, so McDaniels has a safety valve in the paint. But Martin stays attached to preemptively keep Gobert off the offensive glass, so McDaniels sees no defender at the rim.
Another way the Saint-Quentin, France native is imposing his will is on the offensive glass. So far this season, the Wolves’ offensive rebound rate jumps 7.0% when Gobert is on the floor compared to when he’s off. That ranks in the 97th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass, and is a career-high mark. Additionally, Minnesota’s offensive rebound rate over the last four games (32.1%) is tied for fifth in the NBA. Gobert is fourth in the league in offensive rebounds per game (3.5) but is scoring more second chance points and drawing more fouls of late.
As you can see in these clips, he is doing a great job predicting which teammate will shoot and how the ball might come off the iron so he can best position himself to rebound a miss.
Now, all this is not to say that Gobert hasn’t had his shortcomings, because he certainly has. The chemistry between him and Edwards still isn’t there, but Gobert believes that some of the rough turnovers Edwards has made trying to get him the ball is part of growing.
“Ant has been turning the ball over trying to hit me, and I really appreciate that. I think you’ve got to go through that phase if you want to build that relationship. And for me, just keep being in the right spot for him, and it’s been great,” Gobert said.
So, what can they do to improve that?
“Whether it’s doing drills together, just playing two on two against coaches, working on those different situations on pick and roll and then the film,” Gobert explained. “I think for him, just building that skill – that passing skill and that muscle memory of throwing that lob coming off the screen, some of that comes from doing it in practice and then people make mistakes.”
Gobert loves that Edwards is not only willing to put in the work, but willing to listen.
“Of course. He wants to win and he wants to listen and he wants to get better. That’s all I need. For me, I just try to keep being a positive influence for him, and for me the best thing to do is just go and do a 10-minute drill for him and build that chemistry, and then during the game, I know sometimes he’s going to miss me, and that’s fine,” Gobert continued. “I know he’s looking for me, and he’s really trying to make the right play. And for us as a team, I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve taken a step – Ant has been getting better and better.”
The big man also took responsibility for his own difficulties with catching passes.
“Sometimes I don’t know where they’re going to throw it, and they throw it up. It’s part of that chemistry. And sometimes it’s hard for them to throw it up if they’ve got a 7 footer right here, so I’ve got to be ready for that bounce,” he said. “It’s part of the game, just them understanding how I’m most successful finishing and me also understanding guys’ different ways of passing. I know DLo loves to throw that bounce pass. Ant, I think he can do both. It just comes with the time and trust.”
With time, that two-way trust is certainly developing now that the Wolves are seeing the offensive impact of a more optimized Gobert, one that feels empowered and ready to unleash his dominance on opposing defenses. Minnesota has four straight wins in the bag, but in order to make it five and counting, it’s about repeatedly playing unselfish basketball that unlocks the best version of Anderson, Prince, and McDaniels around Gobert, so that the three-time All-Star can not only best help himself, but his teammates, too.
Whether or not the Timberwolves can continue to stack wins without Karl-Anthony Towns remains to be seen, but the good news is they have an offensive recipe that will guide them not only while Towns is out, but when he gets back, too.