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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.

Timberwolves win first road game in 52 days, top Heat (video)

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MIAMI — Jordan McLaughlin’s layup with just under nine seconds left put Minnesota ahead for good, D’Angelo Russell led all scorers with 27 points and the Timberwolves added to Miami’s late-season stagger by beating the Heat 129-126 on Wednesday night.

Malik Beasley scored 21 points, Juancho Hernangomez tied a season-high with 17 and McLaughlin added 13 for Minnesota. The Timberwolves were down by 12 with 3:59 left, then closed on a 20-5 run to get just their second victory in 20 games.

Jimmy Butler’s two free throws with 13.8 seconds left put Miami up 126-125, but McLaughlin’s layup on the next Minnesota possession put the Timberwolves on top to stay. Butler’s layup with 3.2 seconds left got blocked by Russell, and the Wolves held on.

Minnesota snapped a nine-game road losing streak, getting its first road victory since beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 5.

Kendrick Nunn led Miami with 24 points. Bam Adebayo had 22 points and 10 rebounds and Butler — back after a two-game absence for personal reasons — had 18 for Miami. The Heat fell to 23-4 at home and have dropped seven of their last nine overall.

The Heat stayed a half-game ahead of Philadelphia in the race for the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Philadelphia lost in Cleveland earlier Wednesday, a game where 76ers star Joel Embiid departed early because of a shoulder injury.

The Heat have had major trouble closing games of late — a 22-point lead late in the third quarter against Cleveland on Monday was frittered away in what probably was the worst loss of the season, until now anyway — and a long film session and meeting on Tuesday clearly didn’t solve the issue.

They were up 121-109 with 3:59 left, and 123-112 after a layup by Butler 24 seconds later.

And Minnesota — a team that came into the night with one win in a span of 48 days — still wasn’t finished off. The Timberwolves scored the next 11 points to tie the game, getting five of those points from Beasley and a tying free throw from McLaughlin with 46 seconds left.

TIP-INS

Timberwolves: Minnesota’s 27 attempts from 3-point range in the first two quarters was a first-half franchise record. … The Wolves are 4-0 in road games against Southeast Division teams this season, and 6-19 in all other road contests.

Heat: Adebayo played through a sprained right ankle, pushing his consecutive-game streak to 144 — extending the fourth-longest such streak in team history. … Goran Dragic’s first basket was a 3-pointer, and that pushed him one point past Grant Long (5,473) for 10th on the Heat career scoring list. … Nunn got his third consecutive rookie of the month trophy in a brief halftime ceremony.

JOHNSON RETURNS

Wednesday marked James Johnson’s first game back in Miami since the trade that sent him to Minnesota earlier this month, a move that sent Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill to Miami from Memphis. “I think Minnesota is seeing what kind of versatility he can bring to the game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

LOOKING AHEAD

A large contingent of fans from Slovenia were in attendance Wednesday — and more are coming Friday, when the Heat play host to the Dallas Mavericks. At last season’s Dallas-at-Miami game, more than 2,000 Slovenians were in attendance to watch their nation’s two best NBA players, Dragic and Dallas star Luka Doncic, go head-to-head.

UP NEXT

Timberwolves: At Orlando on Friday night.

Heat: Host Dallas on Friday night.

Trae Young blocks 7-foot Mo Bamba at rim (video)

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Trae Young might be the NBA’s worst defender.

He’s small (6-foot-1 with a 6-foot-3 wingspan). His athleticism is far from imposing. He also carries a massive load for the Hawks offensively, leaving little energy for defense.

But he still blocked 7-foot Magic center Mo Bamba at the rim.

Not a great moment for Bamba.

Joel Embiid leaves 76ers game with shoulder injury (video)

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Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons?

The debate has gained attention this season after the 76ers spent years retooling around their stars. The answer clearly isn’t neither. But that’s what Philadelphia now faces.

With Simmons already injured, Embiid got hurt in the 76ers’ game against the Cavaliers tonight.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Losing Embiid for an extended period would be a huge blow to Philadelphia, especially with Simmons already out. The 76ers (fifth place, half a game out of fourth) are right on the edge of getting home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Embiid had been playing so well lately. This is an especially tough time for a setback.

At least Philadelphia has depth to cope. Al Horford can easily slide from power forward to center. Tobias Harris might be better off at power forward than small forward, anyway. This is where Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks, acquired just before the trade deadline, come in handy as additional wing options. Kyle O'Quinn can also play behind Horford.

But the loss of talent is the biggest development, and there’s no overcoming that until Embiid and Simmons get healthy.

Zach LaVine: Trash talk directed at Dennis Schroder, not Bulls coach Jim Boylen

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During the Bulls’ loss to the Thunder yesterday, Zach LaVine appeared to say, “I have f—ing 40 points!”

Many assumed LaVine was snapping at Chicago coach Jim Boylen. But LaVine clarified his target was Oklahoma City guard Dennis Schroder.

Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

I take LaVine at his word.

Want to make a case LaVine dislikes Boylen? You’ll just have to point to all the other evidence.