CHICAGO — It is special for Rudy Gobert to be here.
It is special for him to be here, representing the Utah Jazz. It is special for him to be sitting next to his teammate Donovan Mitchell on the eve of their All-Star debuts.
Who could have seen this coming?
Gobert had hoped for it, but nothing was guaranteed. It wasn’t until his second year, with the arrival of head coach Quin Snyder, that things started to turn around.
“We’ve been through it all with one another, and I’m just grateful to have Quin (Snyder) as my coach.” — Rudy Gobert
“When Quin got there, I was almost in the G League,” Gobert said on Saturday. “He really believed in me, he gave me an opportunity, gave me a chance to become a big part of this team and this organization. ... We’ve been through it all with one another, and I’m just grateful to have Quin as my coach.”
Drafted 27th overall in 2013, Gobert struggled under coach Tyrone Corbin to find playing time. At the end of the bench, Gobert rarely broke the rotation and had multiple stints with the then D-League Bakersfield Jam.
“It’s just going to be a process with him,” Corbin said at the time.
The rookie from France, acquired by the Jazz in a draft-night trade, had high hopes that didn’t seem to align with what was being seen from the outside.
He was racking up multiple DNPs, minutes were scattered, he was fifth at best on the Jazz’s center depth chart and was becoming all too familiar with the long bus rides and sleepless nights that come with D-League assignments.
“I’ll never forget it,” Gobert said of his rookie year struggles. “It’s part of who I am and part of my journey.”
Even back then, when just getting on the floor was difficult, he was still learning English and there was barely anyone who believed that he could become an elite player, Gobert had All-Star aspirations.
“In five years I want to be an All-Star,” Gobert said in 2014. “That’s my goal. And win a title.”
It was, of course, five years later that Gobert was left off the All-Star team and infamously became emotional when speaking to reporters the following day about being snubbed and receiving a tearful phone call from his mother.
It’s sometimes surprising to think about how much things have changed for Gobert and the Jazz in just a few years. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year is highly regarded throughout the league, feared by many opponents, and revered by his teammates and coaches.
While Snyder was the one who gave Gobert the playing opportunity that he needed to evolve and grow, things really changed when the Jazz drafted Mitchell in 2017.
Gobert remembers feeling like he was just starting to find a good groove and seeing exponential growth on both sides of the floor when seemingly overnight, the outlook for the team was shaken.
“When Gordon (Hayward) left, everyone thought we were going to be a lottery team. We didn’t think that way — we had different plans,” Gobert said. “Then you have that rookie that comes in and does what Donovan was doing and all of a sudden everyone gets excited again and we are where we are today.”
Mitchell’s journey to becoming an All-Star has not nearly been the roller coaster that it’s been for Gobert. He was a contender for Rookie of the Year honors, he’s never known what it’s like to miss the playoffs, and he’s an All-Star in just his third year.
The fact that his path has been expedited and he knows how hard Gobert has worked has given him a deeper sense of appreciation.
More than anything though, Mitchell is proud that his All-Star debut is shared with Gobert, who he says is more deserving than people give Gobert credit for especially on the offensive end.
“There’s not a better screener and roller in the league than Rudy,” Mitchell said. “It’s an art that’s not talked about. He makes my life a lot easier. ... We’ve come a long way. Obviously he’s been waiting for this for a long time so I’m really happy to see this for Rudy. ... The one thing we keep telling each other is this isn’t it. We have championship aspirations.”
In pursuit of those aspirations, the Jazz have found themselves positioned nicely. They might not be a favorite and it might take more time to round out a team that can win it all, but things are looking pretty good.
The Utah Jazz have the Western Conference’s fourth best record, they have two NBA All-Stars, a reigning DPOY, and have no plans of settling.
Gobert and Mitchell are trying their best to take time and smell the roses during the All-Star weekend.
They know how much their All-Star appearances mean to the Utah fanbase and that they are often overlooked as one of the league’s smaller markets.
“To represent the state of Utah is such a blessing,” Mitchell said.
They also know that great things have come from the Jazz and that in the shadow of tandems like John Stockton and Karl Malone that they have a chance to forge a new era of Jazz basketball and that doing it together and playing for each other is the best way to get there.
So in between moments of appreciating the journey to becoming All-Stars, of beaming with pride while surrounded by reporters and cameras, Gobert and Mitchell continue to remind each other that this is just a stepping stone for them.
They’re All-Stars together now. They plan on being champions together, too.