Utah Jazz: Gobert's huge strides this season a big reason for team's improvement

Utah Jazz: Gobert's huge strides this season a big reason for team's improvement

SALT LAKE CITY — Rudy Gobert came up mighty big, to say the least, for the Utah Jazz this past season.

The 7-foot-1 center from France made huge strides, literally and figuratively, on the court to help the Jazz take a giant leap forward — from a team that won 40 games and finished just outside the Western Conference playoffs in 2015-16, to a team that won 51 regular-season games and reached the second round of the playoffs in 2016-17.

Gobert, along with All-Star forward Gordon Hayward, were two of the biggest factors in Utah’s impressive rise to a No. 5 seed in the West.

And Gobert’s dramatic improvement from previous seasons might’ve been the single most critical difference in this year’s Jazz team and the ones which missed the playoffs each year from 2013-2016. He averaged 14 points, 12.8 rebounds (fourth in the NBA) and a league-leading 2.6 blocked shots per game in anchoring one of the top defensive lineups in the NBA.

And his continued improvement moving forward will certainly play a big-time role in Utah’s quest to climb higher up the Western Conference ladder in years to come.

“I don’t think I’ve hit the ceiling on my game yet,” Gobert said Tuesday at the team’s annual locker-cleanout day press conferences.

The Jazz don’t think so, either, rewarding him with a huge contract that will raise his salary 10-fold next season — from $2,121,288 this year to $21,224,719 next year.

Gobert, who expressed his desire to just keep getting stronger and better in the future, said the big pay raise won’t affect his strong work ethic and desire to improve.

“I always put pressure on myself to be the best I can be,” he said, “so the big contract doesn’t change that. It just shows that the organization believes in me, and I believe in the organization.”

Utah head coach Quin Snyder cited Gobert’s huge strides forward as a key factor in his team’s tremendous progress.

“I think Rudy’s individual improvement is certainly something that you would logically point to,” Snyder said. “We always expected and believed in Rudy as a player, but what he’s done this year (has been truly remarkable).”

And when it comes to Utah’s big men, the Stifle Tower’s performance and continued improvement will be critical to the team’s success going forward.

So, too, could be the play of power forward Derrick Favors, who missed 32 regular-season games in 2016-17 due to nagging problems with his left knee that never did seem to go away completely.

“Individually, it was tough, it was tough mentally for me, just dealing with the injuries and not being able to go out there and help my teammates,” said Favors, whose scoring average of 9.5 points per game and minutes played this year were his lowest since the 2012-13 season, and whose rebounding mark of 6.1 per game marked the fewest since his rookie season of 2010-11.

The 6-foot-10, 25-year-old forward insisted that his knee issues are now behind him, and he’s hoping that by improving his conditioning during the offseason, it will help pave the way for a bounce-back season in 2017-18.

“I’m going into this offseason healthy,” he said. “The last offseason I wasn’t a hundred percent. This offseason I am so I’ll be able to train like I’ve normally trained in every other offseason. … I definitely feel a hundred percent now going into this offseason … and I want to make sure I get healthy, get back on track with my game and conditioning and everything and come back next year better. … I’m excited about this offseason.

“I know it’s going to be a crazy offseason, but we’ve got a lot of good players here and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Gobert would like nothing more than to have D-Fave alongside him more often on Utah’s front line next season.

“When we play together, we’ve been one of the best defensive teams in the league,” Gobert said.

Joe Johnson, a 16-year NBA veteran who signed with Utah as a free agent last summer, wound up playing a ton of minutes at the power forward spot this season, and thoroughly enjoyed his first year in the Beehive State and was very proud of what this ballclub accomplished.

“It was fun, man, it was fun to be a part of, even after the losses, because you could see the changes in the attitudes, how people responded and how much more focused they were, so I was proud of these guys,” he said.

“I thought it was a great mix of veteran guys with young guys, and I thought it was a great recipe for a pretty good season.”

Johnson, who was very instrumental in Utah’s first-round playoff series triumph over the Los Angeles Clippers, saw great improvement and maturity from the Jazz ballclub throughout the season.

And at age 35 — he’ll turn 36 next month — he still loves to play the game and hasn’t even thought about what it might be like to retire.

Neither has 35-year-old Boris Diaw, who became the starting power forward in Favors’ absence. He also enjoyed his first season in Utah and hopes to return next year.

“This is a just young team that keeps getting better,” Diaw said, “… and I would like to be back here.”

Among Utah’s other big men, second-year forward Trey Lyles struggled with his shooting this season, making just 36 percent of his shots from the field and 32 percent from 3-point range.

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With the additions of veterans like Johnson and Diaw to Utah’s roster, Lyles eventually saw his minutes on the court diminish and found himself buried on the end of the bench at times. He’s under contract for next season, but he’ll need to regain his shooting stroke if he hopes to work his way back into Snyder’s regular rotation.

Backup center Jeff Withey is a free agent who expressed his desire to come back and play with the Jazz next season, too, and rookie big man Joel Bolomboy, the former Weber State star who bounced back and forth between the NBA and Utah’s D-League team in Salt Lake City, will hope to continue his progress toward earning more playing time with the big club next year.

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Published at Fri, 12 May 2017 02:34:00 +0000