Rudy Gobert: France’s new unsung hero

It was the summer of 2010, when a fresh-faced Rudy Gobert first surfaced onto the international stage in the basketball-mad Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, for the under-18 European Championships where the relative upstart played second fiddle to a host of opposing stars such as Jonas Valanciunas, Alessandro Gentile and Davis Bertans.

And in the space of five short years; the Saint Quentin native has risen to be an established NBA center that was in the running for Most Improved as well as Defensive Player of the Year.

It’s all happened so fast but Gobert’s hard graft had largely gone unnoticed until last year’s FIBA World Cup, when the Utah Jazz big man used his freakishly long 9’7” reach to deny Spain’s Pau Gasol.

It was then that people started to take notice and watch Gobert a little more. Suddenly French big Alexis Ajinca had a rival in the national team ranks, and since the World Cup, Gobert has got better, averaging 8.4 points and 9.5 rebounds with the Jazz last season, but also he helped Utah, a team that normally misses the Playoff picture improve, defensively. Towards the end of the season, with Gobert as the main defensive clog after Enes Kanter was traded, the French big steered the Jazz to a five-game winning streak spanning from Febraury 20, to March 3 of this year, where they were beating established sides such as the Portland Trailblazers, San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies.

But they were doing so by holding teams to 88 points per 100 possessions and thanks to Gobert, plus the rest of the Jazz unit, they were taking opposing bigs prisoner. San Antonio’s trio of Tim Duncan, Aron Baynes, and Tiago Splitter shot a combined 10-for-24 from the field in their 90-81 loss to the Jazz as Gobert tallied 11 defensive rebounds and three blocks.

And when the Jazz season ended, Gobert then joined up with the French national team, eager yet unsure about his role for this was his first stint in an international competition.

Gobert averaged 4.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, helped France claim bronze and got attention for that block on the hometown hero Gasol.

Not bad for a first timer.

And, that World Cup experience, coupled with the following NBA season has only made him better going into Eurobasket 2015, where he has wowed the hometown folk in Montpellier and Lille with his defensive work ethic and vast improvement on the offensive end.

“It’s been great,” claimed Gobert. “I feel confident, I feel stronger and I’ve got great coaches that are helping me along the way. I’m getting great advice from my French team-mates as well and it helps that we know each other so well. Certainly playing internationals helps me when I go to the NBA season as I’m already in game shape and ready for camp. “

And he’ll be going back to the Jazz as one of Europe, if not the world’s top shot blockers. Gobert is swatting away shots like flies at an average of 1.9 a game and overall, his intimidating existence inside is part of Les Bleus’ mean defensive record at Eurobasket, conceding just 65.4 points, which is a tournament low and they are averaging 41 rebounds in their seven-game unbeaten run, which is more than any other side.

Gobert is taking the new found respect and fame in France and especially Lille though in his stride. The 23-year-old is still taking orders and instruction like a nerdy kid, eager to learn at school.

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“I feel confident, I feel stronger and I’ve got great coaches that are helping me along the way. I’m getting great advice from my French team-mates as well and it helps that we know each other so well.” Rudy Gobert. Photo: FIBA

“He’s still a young guy but he listens a lot, he listens a lot to coach and has been more involved over the last season in the NBA,” explained France team-mate and San Antonio Spurs forward Boris Diaw.

“Defensively, he’s a different player. Before he was young but now he’s playing with more experience, we are giving him more roles and he is very useful to our defensive system and offensively also, we just have to throw the ball, in the air and we know how very efficient he is around the basket.”

Gobert’s first full year with the Jazz after his cameo rookie season has seen him feature in all 82 games, starting 37 of them and now, fast forwarding to France’s semi-final against Spain, he goes into it, with more experience than he had a year previous plus Gobert is averaging 10.1 points a game and as a bonus, he looks forward to a another match-up against Pau Gasol.

The FIBA World Cup quarter-final moment won’t be on his mind though.

“I loved that moment and the adrenalin that I got was amazing,” Gobert admits. “But this is a different game now. Spain 2014 was the past.”

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Rudy Gobert swats Pau Gasol’s attempted hook shot away at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Madrid. Photo: FIBA

But just as Gobert settles into the international scene, his commitments to the Jazz might get in the way, after November 2017, when FIBA’s new international calendar comes into effect.

With qualification to the World Cup and the Olympics drastically altered, the national teams’ competitive games will be more frequent as they will play in four windows – November, February, June and September – which means that Gobert will likely be unable to feature for France in the first two windows due to the long NBA season.

It’s a cycle that could put off a lot of the NBA-based players but Gobert is not one of them.

“I’ll be ready to play in off-season,” he emphatically stated. “I’m proud to represent France and it’ll allow new players to play. Ones that are up and coming and might not usually get the opportunity to play for their national teams. There won’t be big tournaments as frequently as now but the competition for places will be tougher.”

But Gobert is one for a new challenge, he’s been doing it unnoticed for a chunk of his professional career and he will relish the obstacles that lie ahead.