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Brad Rock: Rudy Gobert was Jazz leader all along

SALT LAKE CITY — Shortly after Gordon Hayward announced his departure, and just before Jazz fans started torching their No. 20 jerseys, Rudy Gobert checked in with a totally Rudy move. He posted video of himself driving a car, grooving to the music.

As he did, he raised his hand in a semi-salute, slowly shaking his head with a don’t-worry-‘bout-it smirk.

Whether he actually was trolling Hayward or just telling fans to chill, it was a coolness Jazz fans needed. Gonna be fine was the message.

The wild part is he could be right.

Nobody is saying the Jazz will improve without their All-Star forward. But last season it became debatable whether Gobert, not Hayward, was the team leader. Gobert had impressive stats and a lot more charisma.

The most daring thing Hayward did in his seven years in Utah was write a piece for The Players’ Tribune on video gaming. (Look out, Hunter S. Thompson.) Meanwhile, Gobert baited fans of both Miami and Boston via Twitter emojis during the Hayward recruitment.

On locker cleanout day, Gobert said he didn’t know a reason why the Jazz couldn’t win 60 games next year. That won’t happen now. Still, there’s no other player on the team bold enough to make that projection.

Even early in his career, Gobert was pleasing the crowd by saluting after blocked shots.

Good as Hayward has become, it has taken him seven seasons to reach where he is. He worked relentlessly, adding weight and strength and overcoming his timidity. Conversely, Gobert came in bristling. He has attained a high level in just four years. In ESPN’s real plus-minus statistic for last season, Gobert ranked eighth, Hayward 29th. According to Basketball Reference, his win shares were 14.3, compared to Hayward’s 10.4 and his player efficiency rating was 23.3 compared to Hayward’s 22.2.

Gobert is the only NBA player to finish in the top three in both offensive and defensive ratings.

With Hayward gone, Jazz fans are looking for a star. Gobert is right down the street and halfway across the globe. The French center lives easily in both worlds, posting social media missives in two languages.

So here he comes, the Vuitton of Vivint, the Dior of Defense. While Hayward always seemed weary of the responsibilities of stardom, Gobert embraces it. Hayward stares distantly and reaches for the nearest platitude. Gobert fixes a probing stare, and in a rich voice answers — often more honestly than Quin Snyder would like.

Only Gobert would be salty enough to call out teammates in the regular season, telling ESPN, “We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete” and adding, “We’re too nice.”

Apparently his passion resonated. In an online Deseret News poll after a Jazz loss to the Clippers in March, readers were asked if Gobert was justified in questioning teammates. Eighty-one percent agreed. In another poll accompanying the same story, readers were asked whether Gobert “is a future leader of the team.” Ninety percent said yes.

Now he has to make sure the numbers are as high with teammates.

There’s even a case that losing Gobert would have hurt the Jazz as much as losing Hayward. Utah was 5-4 without Hayward this year, though it did win another game when he played just 18 minutes in a playoff game, thanks to food poisoning.

But without Gobert, the Jazz went 0-1 in the regular season, 0-2 in the playoffs. They did win a playoff game when he was injured 17 seconds into the contest.

Some lead quietly, while others are demonstrative. Jazz fans love Gobert’s fire-breathing swats, which are sometimes punctuated by brief demonstrations. He showed plenty of attitude by jetting to San Diego to help convince Hayward to stay with the Jazz.

The jarring news that Hayward is leaving left Jazz fans dejected. This could happen again, when Gobert reaches free agency in 2021. But that’s relatively far away. For now there are pieces to replace. But one thing that doesn’t need replacing is the Jazz’s leader. He’s been here for a while.