Is Rudy Gobert a star? No, but he’s anything but overrated in Minnesota

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It seems almost fitting that in a season of rebirth for Rudy Gobert, the old demons have come back as well. When The Athletic’s annual league-wide anonymous NBA player poll results were tallied, Gobert was the leading vote-getter for the most overrated player in the league.

This was not all that surprising. Gobert has long been a favorite target of players around the league who believe that his defensive reputation is overstated and that his offensive shortcomings are reason for ridicule. Just this season, the LA Clippers could be seen openly laughing at Gobert while he shot free throws … in a game Gobert’s Minnesota Timberwolves went on to win.

I half expect Gobert to “win” the category in our survey because I understood that point of view for the first nine seasons of his career in Utah. I joined the chorus rolling their eyes at his backers digging deep for analytics that made the case for Gobert as an impact player. I chuckled at the term “screen assist.”

My tune has changed this season as the Timberwolves have emerged as genuine contenders in the Western Conference. Gobert is the kind of player who needs to be experienced up close to fully understand how important he is to his team’s fortunes. He will not wow you with offensive highlights. There will be times when he drops a pass or misses a point-blank bunny. But he has been there every night for the Timberwolves, arguably their most consistent player this season and one who regained his form as the league’s premiere defender.

I always thought that his most ardent defenders in Utah sounded so patronizing when they would say that you have to really watch Gobert nightly to fully appreciate what he brings to the table. Now here I am, telling those players who voted for him that they really have to watch Gobert nightly to fully appreciate what he brings to the table.

Gobert may not have Nikola Jokić’s passing chops or Joel Embiid’s elbow jumper, but he can still use his gravity on offense to open up room to work for his teammates. Gobert may not block six shots a game like Victor Wembanyama, but his presence at the rim deters would-be penetrators from even thinking about going to the basket and his ability to stay in front of quicker players on the perimeter made all the difference for the Timberwolves’ No. 1 defense this season.

I could cite statistics all day long to tell you how impactful he’s been this season. He had the No. 1 individual defensive rating in the league, was in the 99th percentile in paint field-goal percentage allowed and the 93rd percentile in defending shots at the rim.

But that may bore you. Eyes glaze over when the numbers start piling up. The best players in the league make you feel something. Listening to his teammates and coaches talk about how important he is to what they are doing and listening to Gobert himself talk about how much this game means to him has been enough to convince me I was wrong for being dismissive of him during his days in Utah.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to those in the trenches with him.

The coach

Chris Finch was one of the biggest proponents of the Timberwolves’ controversial decision to send a boatload of assets to Utah for Gobert in 2022. And even after he had an underwhelming first season in Minnesota, Finch’s tune did not change. Finch and team president Tim Connelly faced considerable pressure to punt on the experiment of pairing Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns in the frontcourt after the Wolves lost to Denver in the first round of the playoffs last season. But even in a down season for the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Finch saw what the team could become with him in the middle.

Finch and Connelly believed that one of the most important aspects of the trade was surrounding young star Anthony Edwards with veterans who did things the right way like Gobert and Mike Conley. They also believed that a second season together with improved health would bring more synergy and understanding within the roster. That is exactly what has happened this season.

As the Timberwolves racked up 56 wins, the second most in franchise history, Finch constantly sang Gobert’s praises. He lauded the center as the most reliable player on the team, a player who brought intensity, attention to detail and precision every night. He is the biggest reason the Wolves did not lose three straight games all season long.

“There’s a difference between being the reason you win and being the reason you don’t lose,” Finch said last week. “And Rudy is the reason we don’t lose. He doesn’t let us lose these games. He’s been this way all season. He’s an incredible floor raiser and he just brings it and he knows when the team needs him to do this the most. That’s why he’s one of the many reasons he’s so valuable for us.”

Game 1 of their first-round series against Phoenix showed exactly how impactful Gobert can be. The Suns embarrassed the Wolves in three regular season wins. To turn the tables in the playoffs, the Timberwolves needed to assert their size and physicality against the smaller Suns. Gobert led the way with 14 points, 16 rebounds and went 6 of 7 at the free-throw line.

After being labeled as a lumbering player who could not guard on the perimeter during his years in Utah, Gobert looked comfortable outside against Phoenix when he was caught on switches.

Rudy is a really good defender at all levels,” Finch said. “He gets down. He’s big. He can move well and cares. When you get to this moment, there’s nothing to rest him or keep him fresh for. Play him more minutes. You can employ him in different ways.”

The teammate

At times last season, it was easy to see that Edwards was having a tough time learning how to play with Gobert and Towns. Edwards is not a natural lob thrower, and his hesitance to throw the ball to Gobert in traffic put a ceiling on the Timberwolves offense. Gobert didn’t make a great first impression because he was slowed by injuries in training camp and the preseason after playing for France in EuroBasket. It made the transition a difficult one.

This summer, Gobert threw himself into workouts to make sure he reported to camp in the best shape possible. This season his legs have been spry, he is blocking shots more frequently and with greater force and he is showing a greater chemistry with Edwards to key the Timberwolves climb up the standings.

Any reluctance to embrace Gobert on Edwards’ part is long gone. Gobert has won him over with his work ethic, defense and presence in the locker room. Edwards will poke fun at Gobert in interviews and laugh with him in the locker room, his ultimate sign of acceptance.

“We trust to hit him in the pocket. We trust when we call a post up we trust he’s gonna catch it and do his thing. Catch in the pocket, make the one more (pass),” Edwards said. “Trust him at the free-throw line. Just little things like that, it goes a long way. And he’s been playing his ass off. … It’s just trusting Rudy throughout the whole game.”

Edwards is not alone. Towns, Naz Reid, Kyle Anderson, all of the most important Timberwolves have rallied around Gobert this season. He is their security blanket at the rim, allowing them to take chances when guarding on the perimeter. And he is the one who creates offense for them with a well-placed screen or an offensive rebound, six of which he grabbed against the Suns in Game 1.

“We all came together and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna have to do some uncomfortable things in order to get this win,’ ” Nickeil Alexander-Walker said. “Guys gotta figure it out. And again, credit to Rudy, credit to everybody who took that week seriously and tried to prepare for today and the outcome of the game.”

The man

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of seeing Gobert up close throughout a season is understanding just how much he cares about the game, his team and winning. He is one of the most open, candid interviews in the league, and each one he does is layered with the urgency he feels in his 11th season.

“We’ve got to find that desperation every night now,” Gobert said after Game 1. “Whether we’re up in the series, down in the series. Whatever happens, every minute, no matter who’s on the floor, we’ve got to play with that urgency. When we do, it’s fun, and we’ve got no regrets at the end.”

This is not lip service. Gobert is one of the hardest workers on the team. After each practice, he can be seen pulling a weighted sled up and down the court for conditioning. His diet is ultra-regimented, and he urges his teammates to follow his lead.

Four years ago, amid criticism about his clunky offensive game, Gobert started to work with a coach who used innovative drills rooted in neuroscience to address some of the weaknesses in his game. This summer, after an ugly confrontation with teammate Kyle Anderson prompted Connelly to suspend him for a Play-In Tournament game against the Los Angeles Lakers, he met with coaches and teammates and reached compromises on some of the principles he brought with him from Utah so he could better fit into the schemes in Minnesota.

He is doing everything he can to be a good teammate, set a good example for the younger players and do what is asked of him and what is needed from him to take the Timberwolves deep into the playoffs. He understands that there are people in the league who do not believe in him. And he knows there is only one way to change that.

“At the end of the day, I think the highest mark of respect is people challenging you to do the things that you haven’t done yet,” Gobert said. “And I haven’t been past the second round yet, so how can I be mad at them for challenging me to do that?

“We saw it with Giannis (Antetokounmpo), we saw it with Jokić. Everyone always had something to say about their game and about who they were as players until they won a championship. And then what did people have to say after that? Not much. They can only respect. So I have to earn their respect.”

(Photo of Rudy Gobert and Kevin Durant: David Berding / Getty Images)

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