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Why the NBA overlooked Rudy Gobert – and how much hardware it will take to make amends

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BOSTON – The 2013 NBA draft combine explains a lot about why teams doubted Rudy Gobert – and why that wound up a mistake.

Gobert had massive measurements – 7-foot-2 in shoes and a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan. His 9-foot-7 standing reach is tied for the third biggest in the DraftExpress database.

But the French big man posted underwhelming numbers in the athletic testing, including a max vertical of just 29 inches.

It’s one thing to be big. It’s quite another to be big and athletic, and Gobert appeared to be only the former.

So, he fell to the No. 27 pick in the draft, the Jazz trading up to get him.

And they couldn’t be happier now with that decision.

Gobert is averaging 7.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. In 11 starts since Utah traded Enes Kanter, Gobert’s averages have jumped to 10.5 points, 14.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. The Jazz are 9-2 in that span, including wins over the playoff-bound Trail Blazers, Spurs, Bucks, Grizzlies and Rockets

If the 2013 draft were re-done – with consideration to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nerlens Noel, Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams, Mason Plumlee and everyone else – Gobert makes a compelling case to go No. 1 overall.

He’s just so dominant, in so small part due to his impressive athleticism.

So why didn’t it show at the combine?

Gobert participated while battling a pre-existing knee injury.

Despite the risk of faring poorly and seeing his draft stock fall – which ultimately happened – Gobert insisted on competing because he believed teams hadn’t seen enough of him playing in France.

“I had to prove to everybody else what I could do,” Gobert said

Gobert hasn’t stopped working to prove himself since.

Being 7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan and 9-foot-7 standing reach helps. But Gobert is clearly committed to being the best 7-foot-2 player with a 7-foot-8.5 wingspan and 9-foot-7 standing reach he can be.

He didn’t become a center until age 18, playing small forward growing up before a growth spurt. It didn’t take him long to realize what his size advantage could offer – an advantage many players have tried to rest on.

Instead, Gobert is progressing nicely toward maximizing the potential offered by his natural ability.

He doesn’t float toward the perimeter offensively. He works hard to position himself for as many high-percentage shots at the rim as possible.

He doesn’t just stand under the basket and swat shots. He’s learning the finer points of defensive positioning.

Now, in his breakout season, Gobert is a legitimate contender for three awards – Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player.

He might not win any, and two would be tough. Three would be unprecedented.

Just six players have won two of the major player awards – Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player – in the same season:

  • Darrell Armstrong, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1999
  • Hakeem Olajuwon, Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in 1994
  • Michael Jordan, Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year in 1988
  • Alvin Robertson, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player in 1986
  • Wes Unseld, Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1969
  • Wilt Chamberlain, Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in 1960

Can Gobert join that group?

Defensive Player of the Year

This is the award Gobert said he covets most of the three.

But he’s not holding his breath.

“To be honest and to be realistic, I think they’re going to put somebody who’s more exposed to TV,” Gobert said.

That might be true, though the seemingly popular leader for Defensive Player of the Year – Draymond Green – is an unconventional candidate who thrives because of his defensive versatility. If voters want a convention rim-protecting big man, Gobert makes a strong case.

The Jazz allow 100.0 points per 100 possessions when Gobert plays (equivalent of fifth in NBA) and 106.8 when he sits (28th).

He also leads the league in opponent field-goal percentage at the rim when he’s defending it (at least three shots defended at rim per game):

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Serge Ibaka is another player who fits the Defensive Player of the Year archetype, and his name has been tied to the award for years. That familiarity is a disadvantage to Gobert.

More fairly, some of Gobert’s defensive success can be credited to playing with Derrick Favors. Favors, a more advanced defender, guards extremely well on the perimeter for a big man, allowing Gobert free reign in the paint. However, in the same sense, Gobert boosts Favors. Just because they work well in tandem – allowing 97.4 points per 100 possessions (equivalent of first in the league) when they share the court – doesn’t mean Gobert should be docked.

If these numbers aren’t your bag, just watch a Jazz game. Gobert’s defensive impact is easy to see.

This happens when he’s in the lane (hat tip: Mike Prada of SB Nation):

And this happens when he’s not:

 

 

Want proof Gobert is correct about the lack of attention he receives? There wasn’t more outrage at Jazz coach Quin Snyder not using Gobert to defend the rim in that situation.

Sixth Man of the Year

Gobert is entrenched as a starter now – and likely for years to come.

But he already came off the bench in enough games, 45, to clinch his eligibility for this award.

No player currently eligible has produced more win shares than Gobert:

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Most Improved Player

Many voters gripe about this award, complaining about a lack of clear criteria.

Do they honor a player who saw his role – and therefore numbers – increase or someone who actually got better?

Gobert checks both boxes.

The second-year center has progressed on both sides of the ball, but his growth offensively is especially impressive.

He has flashed a passing ability that was completely non-existent last season. He’s shooting 65.7 percent in the restricted area, up from 53.0 percent last season.

He runs the floor hard (ranking 18th of 400 eligible players in points per transition play finished) and finds space in the pick-and-roll (ranking 31st of 198 eligible players in points per roll play finished).

Joe Ingles has assisted Gobert more than anyone else, because Ingles has seemingly figured out he can throw the ball anywhere near Gobert’s general vicinity and Gobert will grab it. Even low passes have a way of finding their way into Gobert’s hands.

“He’s just kind of easy to play with, really,” Ingles said. “He’s so tall and stuff that when you play pick-and-rolls and stuff like that, it’s easy to find him. He gets to the right spot.”

All in all, no player has increased their win shares from last season more than Gobert (0.4 to 6.5)

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Gobert’s improvement can be defined not just by how much he’s already done, but by how much untapped potential remains.

As much as Gobert helps the Jazz’s defense, their offense falls by about the same amount when plays. A key issue: Neither he nor Favors shoots well from outside.

How do you make that pairing work offensively?

“You just asked one of the hardest questions in coaching,” Snyder said, “and It’s how to space bigs in pick-and-roll. It’s why the league, over a period of time, is going to stretch bigs. It just makes the floor open. It’s easier. What you lack maybe in shooting range, you have to make up for with movement, screening, passing, different types of skill to occupy defenders. It’s just not easy. It’s not easy.”

That’s a frank answer, and there’s no disguising the challenge Utah faces. Favors has three seasons after this one remaining on his contract, and Gobert has two before he can become a restricted free agent.

So, no, this is hardly a perfect situation.

But as long as Gobert remains so committed to proving himself, bet on him figuring out how to make it work.

Mike Budenholzer no fan of Drake’s free run on Toronto sideline

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Drake is the Mayor of Toronto.

Actually, he does fewer drugs than some former mayors of Toronto, and Drake was not elected, but he’s The Mayor in any meaningful way. The man can do whatever he wants.

Such as walk up and down the sidelines of a Raptors game with impunity, and give Nick Nurse a massage during the game.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has much bigger things to worry about — such as were Eric Bledsoe misplaced his shot — but somehow during his conference call with the media on Wednesday, before a critical Game 5, Drake was the topic of discussion. Budenholzer is not a fan of Drake getting to patrol the sidelines. Via ESPN:

“I will say, again, I see [Drake talking to Raptors] in some timeouts, but I don’t know of any person that’s attending the game that isn’t a participant in the game a coach,  I’m sorry, a player or a coach, that has access to the court. I don’t know how much he’s on the court. It sounds like you guys are saying it’s more than I realize. There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors. You know, to be on the court, there’s boundaries and lines for a reason, and like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that.”

My guess is the league (and maybe the referees before Game 6 in Toronto) will reach out to Drake and tell him he can’t go Joe Biden on a coach during the game, and to stay near his seat. This is precisely the kind of distraction from the game that fans love to talk about and annoys the league office, which wants the focus on the court.

Personally, the more personality around the game, the better. It’s entertainment people, enjoy the show.

Knicks president Mills says Porzingis threatened to return to Europe if not traded in seven days

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If you thought the Knicks thrashing or Kristaps Porzingis on his way out the door was over, well, you haven’t been paying attention to the Knicks.

Team president Steve Mills was at a Knicks fan forum on Wednesday and was asked about the Kristaps Porzingis trade and dropped this bomb: Porzingis gave the Knicks the ultimatum of “trade me or I’m going back to Europe.”

“When he walked into our office, my office, and Scott [Perry, Knicks GM] was sitting there with me, and point blank said to us, ‘I don’t want to be here, I’m not going to re-sign with the Knicks, and I’ll give you seven days to try and trade me or I’m going back to Europe.'”

To be clear, Porzingis had to mean going back to Europe to work out and hang out, he could not have played professionally. European clubs honor commitments to NBA contracts — they will not sign and play a guy under an NBA contract — the same way the NBA does with European clubs (as well as China and all FIBA leagues).

Saying he wasn’t going to re-sign makes things clear, it’s one of the reasons the NBA touted the “super-max” contract extensions because teams would find out earlier about player intentions. The Europe part, if Porzingis really said that, is a toothless threat.

For the Knicks brass, speaking in front of Knicks fans, this was the chance to make themselves look good — “see, we already had a good trade in place” — and thrash the guy they had been selling as the franchise savior a year before. It’s all about perception.

The Knicks have a lot of cap space this summer and their perception as a front office will hinge on what they do — or do not do — with it.

Porzingis landed in a good spot with Luka Doncic in Dallas, and the Mavericks will give Porzingis a max contract. Then it’s on him to earn it.

New Suns coach Monty Williams: ‘I’m here at the right time, and I’m here with the right people’

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PHOENIX (AP) The Phoenix Suns have gone through coaches like tear-away racing visors, the count up to five in five years.

The instability has hurt them on the court, the run of playoff-less appearances stretching to nine straight seasons with this year’s 19-63 finish.

Monty Williams, the man GM James Jones hired to coach the Suns, hopes to change the trend.

“Continuity, having a staff here for a while and putting in a system that the players can rely upon, but ultimately it will come down to James, myself and the players pushing this thing forward,” Williams said during his introductory news conference Tuesday. “The players are going to have to embrace a level of work and commitment that it takes to be a champion.”

Williams was hired on May 3 to replace Igor Kokoskov, who was fired after one season in the desert.

Williams’s arrival in Phoenix was delayed while he finished out the playoffs as an assistant to Philadelphia coach Brett Brown. The 76ers were eliminated from the playoffs last week by Toronto on Kawhi Leonard‘s hang-on-the-rim buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Williams’ name had been linked to numerous head coaching jobs, including the Lakers, but he wound up in the Valley of the Sun after multiple discussions with Suns owner Robert Sarver.

“In my conversations with Mr. Sarver, I saw someone who didn’t duck the tough questions,” Williams said. “We both had tough questions for each other and in this day and age where people throw each other under the bus, make excuses, blame, I didn’t see that. I saw a man who really wants to bring success to this city and I mean that with all of my heart or I wouldn’t have come here.”

Williams had a previous stint as an NBA head coach, leading New Orleans from 2010-15. A year after he was fired, Williams’ wife, Ingrid, was killed in a car crash.

He didn’t know if he wanted to get back into coaching after her death, but was pushed by his kids to return to coaching the sport he loves.

“When everything happened to my family, my focus was just take care of my children,” said Williams, who has remarried. “That led me to believe I might not ever be able to coach again, and I was cool with that. But they weren’t. And to have your children want you to go back to doing what you love to do gave me even more confidence, more strength. Hopefully that translates and the players can pick up on that.”

The Suns have been known as a dysfunctional franchise, but were lauded for landing Williams, a well-respected, well-rounded coach.

Williams played nine NBA seasons with New York, San Antonio, Denver, Orlando and Philadelphia. He’s been a head coach, an assistant and spent two years in San Antonio’s front office.

“His experience in all facets of basketball as a coach, player development on the offensive side of the ball and the defensive side of the ball, in the front office gives him a unique perspective that I think is well suited for our franchise,” Jones said.

In the Suns, Williams takes over a young team with two star-quality players at its core: Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

Booker has developed into one of the NBA’s best scorers, leading the Suns with 26.6 points per game. He had five 40-point games the final month of the season, including 50 and 59 in consecutive games.

Ayton was the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s NBA draft and didn’t disappoint, shooting 59% while averaging 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds.

Phoenix should add to its talent base with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft.

“There’s so much room to grow,” Williams said. “I think we have a young team that’s learning how to win and they will and I have to do my job. I have to enhance the strengths but be honest about our weaknesses and get the players to consider a new way of doing some things. I think I’m here at the right time and I’m here with the right people.”

Hornets’ Miles Bridges on All-Rookie: ‘I didn’t get snubbed. I played like a— all year’

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The NBA released its All-Rookie teams yesterday. Hornets forward Miles Bridges missed out, getting only one first-team vote and four second-team votes.

Bridges:

I love this attitude. Bridges didn’t deserve to make it. It’s silly to for anyone, including him, to pretend otherwise.

He’s obviously being too hard on himself. He had an OK rookie year. It just wasn’t one of the NBA’s 10 best this season.

Players often hold inflated opinions of themselves. That might help them succeed in a high-pressure job, and that’s obviously their priority. To be clear: I’m not criticizing them for adopting an approach that helped them reach this high level. But it leaves them as lousy analysts of their own performance.

Bridges doesn’t have that problem. It’s easy to see how this will drive him to improve.

His humility won’t work for everyone. But it works for him, and it’s a refreshing change of pace.