Gobert’s Defense Leads Rookies

Rocky Widner NBAE/Getty ImagesRocky Widner NBAE/Getty Images

Rookie center Rudy Gobert, 27th pick in the first round of the NBA draft for the Utah Jazz, had a quiet beginning to the season. Since then, he’s managed to show the potential on which he was drafted – his defense.

Gobert leads the 2013-14 rookie class in blocks per game, at 1, with the next closest rookie being Giannis Antetokounmpo, of the Milwaukee Bucks, at .81 per game. Gobert doesn’t qualify to be on the leaderboard for blocks per 48 minutes, since he’s averaged only 11.3 minutes in the 33 games he’s appeared in so far this season. If he did, his per-48 number would be 4.25, well above current per-48 blocks leader Roy Hibbert. Hibbert, of the Indiana Pacers, averages 3.91 blocks per 48 minutes, and is largely regarded as the best rim defender in the NBA.

While comparing Gobert to Hibbert is an unfair comparison, due to their vastly different skill-sets and experience levels, looking at Gobert’s impact on the defensive end is certainly intriguing. Were he to qualify for a spot on the per-48 leaderboard, and was able to consistently contribute at the same level he has
so far this season, Gobert would be considered a very adept defender.

According to the player tracking data from NBA.com, when Gobert is in the game, opponents have only attempted 3.7 shots at the rim directly against Gobert. A low number in this category is a good thing – it means that opposing defenses recognize Gobert’s defensive aptitude, and adjust their game plan to fit around his presence at the basket. The lower number, though, is also indicative of the fact that Gobert sees sparing minutes.

In regards to Gobert, drawing comparisons between his advanced statistics and possible on-court production if he were to have more minutes, isn’t too big of a stretch.

In addition, instances of Gobert readily effecting defenses have been seen as of late. In games against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jazz coach Ty Corbin inserted Gobert due to injuries.  Before Gobert came off the bench to relieve starting center Enes Kanter, Utah had taken quite a beating in the paint. Guards Ricky Rubio and J.J. Barea got to the rim with ease, scoring easily and creating a problem for Utah’s low-post defense.

Once Gobert entered the game all of that changed. Gobert’s long arms blocked four shots in quick succession, broke Alexy Shved’s nose, and immediately forced Minnesota to quit going into the paint and began settling for mid-range jump shots and three-point attempts. Gobert’s defensive impact was felt almost
immediately.

Per player tracking data, Gobert’s opponents only average 42.3% on field-goal attempts at the rim. That percentage is lower than Zach Randolph and Andrew Bogut.

Randolph and Bogut are both starting big men, while Gobert is a third-stringer. This means he plays against other, less-productive and less-efficient talent, than Randolph and Bogut. Based purely on talent alone, Gobert’s opponents should shoot a lower percentage at the rim, and they do.

However, Gobert has also legitimately shown that he’s good at not just blocking shots, but altering them as well. His presence in the paint alone forces guards to think twice about driving to the basket, and his incredibly long wingspan can alter shots dramatically, forcing players to shoot over him, which often results in a lower-percentage shot.

So what does all this mean in regards to Gobert’s authenticity as a defender? While his numbers are based on a limited sample size, in limited minutes against mostly below-average NBA talent, he still shows aptitude when he gets playing time. Gobert was drafted purely on potential, as most late first-round picks usually are, and he’s shown glimpses of that potential for the Jazz.

Arguments could be made on either side of this – Gobert either deserves more time due to his impressive defensive numbers, the fact that he leads all rookies in blocks per game, and his size. Or, he doesn’t deserve more minutes because he’s gained those numbers in only 33 games, and only 11.3 minutes per game at that. Regardless, his potential is still there, and potential is something that’s usually worth investigating, especially in the sports world.

So is that potential enough to make Utah want to give him a larger role moving forward? That’s a question which will remain to be answered, but one that should bear some serious consideration by both the coaching staff and the front office.

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