Last year’s version of Rudy Gobert entered the season with questions, doubts and write-offs swirling all around him. He also wasn’t completely healthy, jumping into training camp after a physical EuroBasket campaign. His body and mind didn’t seem to be right, and Minnesota Timberwolves viewers wondered where the Defensive Player of the Year model of Rudy had disappeared to following his trade from the Utah Jazz last July.
It was a choppy process to fit Gobert into the Timberwolves’ offense in 2022-23. The point guard was busy drawing fouls on rip-throughs, the face of the franchise was just 21 years old and in need of a large dose of passing development, and the other big man he was going to line up next to missed three-quarters of the season, to name a few obstacles.
But things are different now for the Frenchman, at least on the level of individual performance. He’s fully healthy, feeling better than ever physically and mentally following an offseason darkness retreat, and gets another chance to play a full season next to his old Utah connection Mike Conley.
I asked Gobert if he feels like his old self: "Not even my old self. I feel better than I've ever felt, because I feel like I'm stronger than I've been. The experience that I have now, you add that to the rest of the abilities that I have, I think that's the best that I've been."— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) October 27, 2023
Through three games this fall, Gobert looks like a revitalized player indeed — on both ends of the court. It’s very early, but he’s upped last season’s counting stat averages (currently 14.3 points, 13.3 rebounds and two blocks per game), and even though his field goal percentage is down considerably at 57%, the Wolves have mostly gone away from trying to force-feed him on the block. That allows him to focus on his best play type: cutting and rolling for alley-oops and drop-off passes at the rim. Let’s take a look at his springy step in pick-and-roll, where he’s asserting dominance early in 2023-24.
In this possession from the win over the Miami Heat, there’s a clear vision: probe the pick-and-roll game with Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley.
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The play begins with an empty-side handoff for Conley, looking to attack the matchup of Nikola Jović guarding Gobert. After a couple of attempts to get Conley downhill, the ball rotates to Edwards on the other side of the floor. Gobert, knowing that something efficient will come out of the pairing with Conley, commands the ball back to Minnesota Mike’s hands. Now Jović is in drop coverage near the middle of the floor and Conley is able to reject the screen and occupy two defenders.
Here’s where the fun begins. Rudy wasn’t in a position to catch passes like this and finish from such a distance. He essentially pops on the screen because Jović commits to Conley’s deep paint probe, and has a full head of steam to catch cleanly and hammer home a dunk. Add Karl-Anthony Towns’ cut to the backside corner, which occupies Bam Adebayo’s help-side defense, and it’s a nearly unguardable play because Gobert times up his roll perfectly.
The next clip involves yet another “alley” screen — when the ball-handler uses a screen toward the baseline rather than the middle of the floor — between Conley and Gobert, leading to one of the more explosive plays on the ball Rudy’s made all season.
The action begins with a pass to Gobert on the wing and a sprint into the hand-off and ball screen; this is often more effective because the ball-handler’s defender has to keep pace with his man as well as avoid the contact of the screener. The three weak-side defenders have it tough — in the NBA, you aren’t allowed to stack the paint for more than three seconds at a time, which leaves Gobert’s hard roll to the middle unscathed. Conley has ample space to toss up a patented lob pass and Gobert slams it home with a vertical not previously seen from him in a Timberwolves uniform.
Gobert’s demeanor is clearly more authoritative and full of swagger on this play. He motions Nickeil Alexander-Walker to clear out from the play-side corner so he and Conley can go to work on their own. He pauses for a moment after flushing it home as if to say “I’m back, and there’s nothing you can do to stop this play.” It’s a drastic contrast to the indecision and discomfort we observed most of last season, whether it was due to body shape or scheme to get Gobert involved on offense. The starting points and endpoints of each possession with Gobert and Conley seem significantly more defined, and it’s to Rudy’s great benefit.
The next level for Gobert in pick-and-roll is playmaking out of it. He won’t be asked to do so regularly, but it’s a nice tool to have if the defensive coverage starts demanding something different. There’s also the scheme aspect of getting to the Conley/Gobert pairing in transition, while the defense is still recovering to locate matchups. We see here that the Atlanta Hawks struggle to defend the action in retreat after the missed shot and it leads to some great things for Minnesota.
Conley and Gobert have done this enough times that they know the perfect timing of setting the screen, attacking the space off of it and finding each other on certain roll lengths to the basket. As Trae Young rotates over to resist Gobert’s roll catch, Onyeka Okongwu sprints back from his high wall to do the same. That leaves the Wolves 3-on-2 on the backside, and a clear path for Towns to dive full-speed at the rim for a dunk.
The Wolves offense will have its best and worst moments in the slow, halfcourt possessions — we saw it play out against Atlanta in the second half. But being able to blend halfcourt actions into transition opportunities could be a way to open up the floor a bit more and improve Minnesota’s spacing during Towns and Gobert combo minutes.
Different teams will play Minnesota’s pick-and-roll offense in a variety of coverages. The Hawks adjusted to a drop coverage in the second half compared to a hedge defense, taking away most of Rudy’s lob opportunities at the rim and forcing the ball-handler to snake through the defense for paint touches. When that happens, Gobert’s best used as a paint sealer for that ballhandler. When the Heat played drop coverage against Conley and Gobert, Mike was able to slither around his recovering defender and twist the attack lane against the grain, using Rudy as a shield for an open layup.
This was an excellent read by the former Jazz duo attacking Jović in drop coverage. The Wolves get Anthony Edwards on the move with a double stagger screen, and he flips it back to Conley to get the screen game going. As Rudy rolls to the middle of the floor, Conley keeps Kyle Lowry on his back and hides behind Gobert’s seal of Jović to get a wide-open look at the rim with his strong right hand.
The numbers back up the pairing of experienced pick-and-roll partners. Per PBP Stats, when Conley and Gobert are on the floor together (99 minutes so far this season), Minnesota has a 114.43 offensive rating. That would rank eighth in the entire NBA as far as team offensive ratings go. Conversely, when Gobert is on the floor without Conley (26 minutes), the team’s offensive rating is a prehistoric 86.27. If Conley’s on the court without Gobert, which has a minuscule 15-minute sample size, the results are similar: an 88.24 offensive rating.