The 2021-22 NBA season will be Rudy Gobert’s ninth year in the league. He has played in 545 regular-season games and 43 playoff games.

Long gone are the days when weeks would go by without a headline in Utah that included the name Gobert. Nearly forgotten are the days when Gobert was overshadowed in a pre-draft workout by the likes of Kelly Olynyk and Brandon Davies, or when the most interesting thing about the rookie prospect was his friendship with fellow rookie Ian Clark and his extreme wingspan.

Gobert is a force. He’s one of the biggest (no pun intended) reasons the Utah Jazz have won a lot of games and made five consecutive playoff appearances. His career is already a success in many respects, punctuated last season when he signed a five-year, $205 million contract extension.

“The things that Rudy has done, and consistently done for a number of years, have made him one of the most dominant players in the league,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “When you have that level of achievement, sometimes people can think that’s success. That’s it. You’ve run the race and you finished and you’ve won in some sense.”

There’s the two All-Star bids, the All-NBA honor, the three Defensive Player of the Year awards and all the advanced metrics that back up the impact that Gobert has on the court. He is truly a decorated athlete who has achieved wild success since his G-League playing days back in 2013.

“There’s so many players in the league that would look at that and say, ‘Wow.’ That’s something that they’re aspiring to,” Snyder continued. “I think for certain guys, and Rudy is one of them, there’s a hunger to get better.”

Future gains

But, when a player has achieved so much, as Gobert has, by transforming his body and elevating his game to a level reached by very few, what does improvement look like?

The balance, according to the Jazz’s head coach, is pinpointing areas in which Gobert can improve that will actually have an impact on his game and help his teammates but also feed Gobert’s need to expand his game.

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Snyder offers a hypothetical example: What if Gobert wanted to shoot 3-pointers? Well sure, that’s an area where he could improve. He could spend countless hours trying to raise efficiency in an area where he has almost zero competitive experience — Gobert has taken less than 10 3-pointers (all heaves or desperation shots at the end of a shot clock or quarter) over eight seasons and hit exactly zero.

But is that the most productive use of his time? No. He’s surrounded by shooters and his ability as a rim-running big collapses the defense leaving the already-skilled shooters open for high-efficiency buckets.

The evolution of Gobert’s game and improvement for him probably won’t be as flashy as adding a perimeter game. But that doesn’t make it any less important.

“Something as simple as pivoting,” Snyder said. “Oftentimes the things that can make a player better, they’re not always the most glamorous things. But the greatest players in the world are willing to focus on what appears to be mundane. That’s why they separate themselves.”

Improbable assist

In a strange twist of fate, it might be Hassan Whiteside who helps push Gobert to the next level and take another step forward.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert shoots as Portland Trail Blazers center Hassan Whiteside defends during game Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Once rivals, the two are now teammates and will push each other improve. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Whiteside, who only a few seasons ago was arguing via post-game interviews that he was the best center in the league, better than Gobert, is now on the Jazz roster as a backup to Gobert. It’s not lost on the Jazz executives, coaching staff or players that Whiteside was able to make those arguments at the time because he was earning a huge contract with the Miami Heat. The keyword being “earned.”

Whiteside might be humbled a bit by his current standing, but he also takes great pride in his new role with the Jazz. At the team’s annual media day he told reporters that one of his biggest goals for the 2021-22 season is to provide a level of defense for the Jazz so that there’s not such a big drop-off when Gobert isn’t on the floor. 

In order to achieve that goal, Whiteside has to mirror, as best as he can, what Gobert does and soak up everything he can from the reigning DPOY. And when they practice, it means that Gobert is going up against a similarly built 7-footer who has the length to challenge Gobert in a way that he hasn’t been challenged in quite some time.

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“When I have to finish against someone as long as me and as good as me at protecting the rim, we try to make each other better,” Gobert said. “For Hassan, to have someone to push him everyday and for me having someone to push me too, I think it’s something that’s going to get us better and better over the season.”

Areas of focus

Gobert knows his game isn’t perfect and that there are areas where he could definitely improve that would have a realistic impact in the game. When asked what things he zeroed in on over the summer, Gobert mentioned getting better on switches, improving his free-throw shooting, and finally his touch around the basket and his ability to finish cleanly.

Having a little bit better touch could easily fall into the category of simple and not so glamorous improvements that Snyder brought up. And Gobert admitted that working alongside and up against Whiteside every day has the potential to really help Gobert in that area.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert shoots a free throw during game against the New York Knicks, Wednesday, March 20, 2019, at Madison Square Garden in New York. Becoming a more reliable free-throw shooter is one of the areas of his game Gobert would like to see improve. | Mary Altaffer, Associated Press

“The good thing is that everything is going to be easier in the games because we’re probably the two best rim protectors in the league right now,” he said. “It’s a blessing, a luxury to have us both on the same team and it’s great because we’re both trying to make each other better in practice.”

The evolution of Rudy Gobert is not going to include earth-shattering changes to his game. The Jazz don’t want Gobert to change too much. It would defeat all the work that has gone in over the last eight years if Gobert is asked to be a different player.

“He needs to keep doing the things that he’s doing,” Snyder said. “You know, it’s one of the primary reasons that our team has been good, but oftentimes you want more. That’s a credit to him and the fact that he’s still hungry.”

That’s the key — the hunger to improve. So, whether it’s refining a pivot, tweaking a free throw or getting challenged by a former rival in practice in order to improve finishing capabilities, the most important thing is that after all the accolades and accomplishments, Gobert is still willing to reach for something more. He wants to improve, no matter how minor the improvement is.