SALT LAKE CITY — Center Rudy Gobert gave his career-best scoring average and league-leading field goal percentage a little bump with 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting Monday night.
But as usual, Gobert’s offensive impact in the Utah Jazz’s 111-102 win over the Charlotte Hornets far surpassed the numbers printed in a standard box score.
Gobert, the reigning defensive player of the year, is recognized as arguably the NBA’s most dominant force on that end of the floor. He might also be the league’s most underrated offensive weapon as a big man who makes major impact on many possessions without even touching the ball.
“It’s all about winning for me,” said Gobert, who scores 15.7 points per game and creates a league-leading 13.9 off screen assists, per NBA.com tracking. “It’s all about doing the little things that help us score, help us win and help my teammates be more efficient.”
That’s a significant reason why the Jazz were so appalled that Gobert was an All-Star snub. They believe that their big man should get an All-NBA spot over a center who puts up pretty scoring numbers but will watch the playoffs from the couch. For comparison’s sake, Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns also generates a combined 29.6 points per game off scoring (24.4) and screening (5.2).
“Rudy is our most important offensive player,” Utah general manager Dennis Lindsey told ESPN hours before what became Utah’s 10th win in 11 games.
Lindsey said that with all due respect for star sophomore shooting guard Donovan Mitchell, Utah’s leading scorer by a considerable margin with 23.5 points per game. It’s a statement supported by the advanced statistic of offensive win shares, in which Gobert ranks fourth in the NBA with 8.2, behind only Houston’s James Harden, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Lindsey refers to Gobert’s screening as “akin to the trigger on a gun,” because the Jazz initiate so much of their offense off of Gobert picks, whether it’s pick-and-roll action with their playmakers or off-ball screens to free 3-point sharpshooters Joe Ingles and Kyle Korver. According to Second Spectrum data, Gobert has set a league-high 3,309 screens this season, and no other player comes within 500 picks of that number.
It’s somewhat of a science for Gobert, whose 6.0 screen assists per game are one more than any other player averages this season. He also led the league in the category the past two years, which is as long as the league has tracked the stat. He studies the tendencies of the teammate he is trying to free, the defender he is setting the pick on and his own defender to be as precise as possible with the timing, the location and the angle of his screens.
“I’m strong as s—,” Gobert told ESPN while cracking a grin, “but it’s mental too.”
The Jazz’s coaching staff compares Gobert’s impact as a screener to a Pro Bowl left tackle for an NFL offense. Perhaps the more apt comparison would be a tight end who is a dominant blocker and also demands double coverage as a receiver working the middle of the field.
That strength, which the 7-foot-1, 245-pound Frenchman worked hard in the weight room to develop after arriving in the league rather scrawny, is a primary factor in Gobert establishing himself as one of the NBA’s most powerful finishers. Drills to improve his hands that were once considered a liability, such as catching tennis balls and footballs fired by assistant coach Alex Jensen during the offseason, have helped. So has the league’s emphasis on freedom of movement. And Gobert’s confidence has swelled as much as his biceps during his Utah tenure, so the jitters that factored into him fumbling passes are no longer an issue.
“Rudy is our most important offensive player.”
Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey
The dividends: Gobert’s 287 dunks — including seven in Monday’s win — are the most since that statistic started being tracked in 2000.
“He’s one of the most dynamic rollers in the league, if not the most dynamic roller,” said Mitchell, who had 25 points and five assists in the victory over the Hornets. “A lot of it is just making that lob a threat. That goes a long way.”
Mitchell is on the money: According to NBA.com, Gobert entered Monday night averaging 1.33 points on 251 possessions as a roll man, the most efficient among 34 players with at least 125 such possessions. The benefits from those point-blank buckets for the Jazz do indeed go well beyond the two points Gobert gets each time he rocks the rim.
“His ability to put pressure on the rim is a form of penetration,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “You’ve got to account for him, and that draws defenders just the same way dribble penetration does. He’s actually creating offense. We’ve talked about spacing assists when he rolls to the rim.”
Spacing assists aren’t a statistic officially tracked by the league or even by the Jazz, but it’s a term that often comes up during Utah’s film sessions. The domino effect from the attention defenses have to pay to Gobert’s rolls creates a lot of layups for his pick-and-roll partners or wide-open 3s for weakside spot-up shooters, two of the most efficient plays in basketball.
“One of the great things about Rudy is he’s so unselfish,” said Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio, who had 13 assists Monday, feeding Gobert for five dunks and dishing for three open 3s off pick-and-rolls with the big man. “When he’s rolling with force, he doesn’t think about scoring himself. He’s thinking about making the right play.”
Gobert also generates a lot of extra possessions for the Jazz. He ranks fourth in the league with 3.8 offensive rebounds per game and second in putbacks (107).
You’ll have to click through several pages to find Gobert when scanning through the players with the most post-up possessions. He has had only 69 all season, just over a tenth as many as San Antonio Spurs All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge.
Gobert probably will never be a dominant offensive force in the traditional sense as a center who the offense runs through. But his impact on that end is undeniable for the Jazz, who rank third in offensive rating (114.0 points per 100 possessions) since the All-Star break, helping keep their hopes for home-court advantage in the first round alive.
For the season, Utah scores 4.9 points per 100 possessions more with Gobert on the floor than when he rests, ranking just a tick behind Ingles for the best on the team in that category.
“His offense isn’t always something that’s readily visible,” Snyder said. “What Rudy does really maximizes the other players on the court.”