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Introducing Rudy Gobert to his new Timberwolves team and a new city

The Rudy Gobert trade between the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves has been the most hotly debated deal of the summer. The Wolves paid a premium — four players, four first-round picks and a pick swap — to get the best rim protector and rebounder in the league.

There are some who say the price tag was too high, that a player of Gobert’s limited skill set on offense is not worth what the Timberwolves paid to get him.

The Wolves believe that Gobert is exactly what they need to take a team that made the playoffs as the No. 7 seed into the upper echelon of the Western Conference. They feel they can unlock more of Gobert’s potential on offense and will instantly have an outstanding defense with him in the middle of it all.

Wolves fans have been absorbing the analysis of the deal for more than a month now. The impact Gobert has on a team’s success is complicated to measure. Many of the same fans who used to criticize Gobert as someone not in Karl-Anthony Towns’ league are now trying to grasp why the Wolves were so aggressive in targeting him.

To fully understand what the Wolves are getting, the impact Gobert had in Utah and the person he is along with the player, we are going to pick the brain of The Athletic’s Tony Jones, who has covered Gobert for the past eight seasons. We will go over the misconceptions, the context and the real concerns that should be considered with this union.


Jon Krawczynski: Tony, my man, please help some of the nervous Wolves fans out there right now. You know Rudy as well as anyone. You saw what he did in Utah. First off, just what kind of player are the Wolves getting now that they have Rudy coming aboard?

Tony Jones: Let’s first state the obvious. Rudy Gobert is the best defensive player on Earth. I know some like to point to Draymond Green, but Gobert protects the paint as well as any player the NBA has seen since Orlando Magic Dwight Howard. He’s historically good in that sense. Now, let’s state the not-so-obvious, or some of the things people just have decided to choose to ignore about him over the last three to five seasons. He’s incredibly impactful offensively in a number of ways.

He’s the best screen-setter in basketball, which means Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell are going to see space off the dribble they simply haven’t seen in the past. He’s an elite finisher at the rim when he catches the ball and has a chance to gather. He has as much vertical gravity rolling down the lane as any big in the game, which means Minnesota’s shooters are going to have significant space in the corners.

Utah’s system defensively was built around Gobert. But, quiet as kept, Utah’s offensive identity was also built around Gobert’s ability to screen and roll to the rim. The fact that Minnesota has the offensive talent around him to take advantage of that should make them one of the best teams in the league this season on that side of the basketball.

Most importantly: Gobert is durable. His motor never stops. He is in incredible shape. He runs the floor like a deer. The Timberwolves are full stop getting one of the best 15 players in basketball and one of the best three centers in the league. Gobert is just a terrific talent, and for someone who has seen him get so much unwarranted criticism, I hope he gets the flowers he deserves in the land of 10,000 lakes.

JK: I’m glad you brought that up. You know as well as anyone that Rudy’s status in the league has been debated over the years. The accusations of him getting played off the floor in the playoffs, the fact that he doesn’t shoot in a league that now values stretch bigs more than ever. Heck, the last time the Jazz were in Minnesota, Patrick Beverley and Edwards weren’t afraid to be critical of him (though Pat Bev isn’t afraid to be critical of anyone, it seems). So, what is fair and what is not when it comes to that?

TJ: Gobert dominates in ways that are unconventional in this era of basketball. If you don’t shoot 3s, and if you aren’t aesthetically pleasing, you are going to garner criticism. Gobert has been an easy target in a number of ways, and I’m not going to sit here and claim that he doesn’t have his quirks. He’s extremely demanding of his teammates. He’s extremely honest with the media. It’s why he’s had run-ins with teammates in the past. But he’s never been played off the floor in a postseason situation. His biggest flaw is that you can’t attack switches with him offensively. But, where the Jazz had Donovan Mitchell who could attack switches in a playoff setting, the Timberwolves have Edwards, Towns and Russell who can all attack off the bounce in a playoff setting. Much of the criticism Gobert has encountered in his career has been lazy and significantly off the mark. It’s irony that not many criticize him for the one thing that is actually valid.

JK: So that’s interesting, because all we’ve heard in these parts are how Gobert gets played off the floor in the playoffs. How he’s a great regular-season guy, but not in the playoffs. The Wolves have talked about being able to support him more defensively with Edwards and Jaden McDaniels than the Jazz could on the perimeter. Do you think that is a realistic stance for the Wolves?

TJ: It’s a myth. The Jazz weren’t good enough around Gobert defensively. It remains to be seen whether the Wolves are, especially now that Towns is going to have to defend away from the basket. But Gobert hasn’t played with anyone close to McDaniels’ talent defensively. I think Edwards can defend when he wants as well. I do think in a playoff setting, point-of-attack defense is going to be a question for Minnesota. But the Timberwolves have length and athleticism around Gobert that the Jazz were simply never able to surround him with.

JK: Well, that settles it. I’m starting to plan the parade route right now. What are going to be the biggest obstacles that could get in the way of making the Gobert addition a success?

TJ: There are a couple of things. I worry Gobert won’t get the ball enough to be happy in Minnesota. Quietly, one of the biggest quirks of his is that he will demand the basketball and make it known that he isn’t getting the basketball. That kind of stuff wears on a locker room over time, and the Wolves have a lot of guys on that roster who need the ball in their hands. Secondly, Towns is going to have to prove he can defend, and that’s going to be a big challenge for him. I don’t have any doubts that he can play power forward offensively, but whether he can do it defensively remains to be seen. Thirdly, the Timberwolves aren’t sneaking up on anyone this season. They are going to be hunted, and how does that shift affect the best players on the roster?

JK: Innnnnnnteresting. I think some people may look at Gobert’s career averages and say, “See, he fits perfectly with volume shooters like Edwards and Russell because he doesn’t need the ball.” But that doesn’t sound like the case. Towns has a history of being fine shooting 15 times a game versus 22, which may help. But Russell will really have to pass it and quarterback this offense to keep all the mouths fed.

TJ: The best offense around Gobert is the one that takes advantage of his screening and creates shots off the pass. I do think Gobert will make Edwards and Russell better players. I do wonder how his presence in the paint will impact Towns, who may not have his customary mid-post spots to work from like he usually does. The fit between Gobert and KAT will be key. In a perfect world, they cover each other for what they don’t collectively do well, and they complement each other for their collective strengths.

JK: Yeah, I think we’re going to see a lot more 3s from Towns next season. He kind of went away from that aspect of his game last season to accommodate Russell, Edwards, Beasley and the Wolves shooters. But after Beasley was moved to Utah, there aren’t as many dead-eye shooters to space the floor for Rudy. Towns really introduced the pump fake and drive as a featured part of his game last season. Now he’ll have to let it fly a lot more. The other thing I wondered is Chris Finch likes to play fast. You said earlier that Rudy runs like a deer. Does an up-tempo style fit his game?

TJ: I think it would actually help him. As I mentioned before, Gobert is in incredible shape. This is a guy who would come home from a road trip and run mountains behind his house just to re-acclimate himself to Utah’s elevation. He’s someone who doesn’t get tired in games. I’ve seen him win matchups against Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić just by outrunning them for 48 minutes. So, he can for sure survive in a high-possession environment.

JK: As we get close to wrapping up here, what kind of guy is Gobert? When Wolves fans get to know him, what are they going to find? This is a locker room that was very close-knit last season and used that chemistry to play better than the talent that they had. But there are some strong personalities in there. Towns has been here forever. Edwards has a lot of belief in himself. Russell can run hot and cold. How do you think it all fits that way?

TJ: Gobert’s best and worst qualities are his honesty. It’s direct and it’s brutal. This was a guy who told media this season that Donovan Mitchell should be more like Devin Booker. That being said, Gobert is extremely smart, and he’s certainly smart enough to know that he’s coming into a locker room as the new kid. So, expect him to ramp back a lot of the leadership stuff this season, and expect him to make a real effort to fit in. Like you said, between Towns and Edwards, there are already strong voices and personalities in the locker room. So, I think Gobert’s mentality is going to be to come in and just play basketball.

JK: And I’ve heard he is someone very aware of the discourse. So probably safe to say he is hearing the doubters and the critics who say the Wolves paid too much, that there’s no way this pairing with Towns will work. And he will use that as a little added motivation.

TJ: For sure. He hears and sees everything. He doesn’t speak on it nearly as much as he used to, but he knows it’s there. Bottom line: The Timberwolves will be a really good team for at least the next two years. There is risk near the end of Gobert’s contract. But in the present, Gobert is a game-changer for Minnesota.

(Photo: David Sherman / NBAE via Getty Images)

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