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Utah Jazz bigman Rudy Gobert will make you pay for sending him to the line

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Expect many more double-doubles from this guy as a result

NBA: Preseason-Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve been paying attention to the NBA Preseason so far you may have noticed that the Utah Jazz look a lot better. And they look better despite not showing a lot of their bigger names: Gordon Hayward has played in just two games, Derrick Favors in one, Rodney Hood in two, and Alec Burks in none. George Hill, Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw are new additions who are making sure the team doesn’t panic when those four previously mentioned players aren’t on the court. Young guys like Dante Exum, Trey Lyles, and the surprising Joel Bolomboy have made impacts as well. But the main foundation for the Jazz’ play this preseason seems to have been none other than French bigman Rudy Gobert. Gobert has made a name for himself on the defensive end. And aside from put backs and dunks, not many people fear his offensive capabilities. (Heck, we had an editorial about that yesterday!)

If Rudy is a liabilty on offense, at the end of games he’s going to be someone who may not be capable of anchoring the Jazz defense — especially not if he can be “Hack-a-Shaq’d” to the point of forcing head coach Quin Snyder into sitting him. The early returns so far this preseason show that opportunity is long gone for other teams. Rudy is going to get his on both ends of the court. And if you foul him, watch out.

I looked it up and found evidence to suggest that a) Rudy is a capable FT shooter, and b) he has made strides from the stripe. What I did not know was if this was something no one had done before. So the data used to test my theories come from Basketball-Reference.com and RealGM.com -- both sides you should visit frequently.

Rudy’s Work from the line:

2013 to 2017 Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert FT Improvement AllThatAmar, Data from Basketball-Reference.com and RealGM.com

Okay, these are all of the free throws he has taken since being drafted, and since playing in NBA games as a member of the Utah Jazz. So there’s nothing here from Team France, or “friendly” FIBA exhibitions, and the like. Stuff he’s done while on the Jazz payroll, including playing in the NBA Development League (thanks Tyrone Corbin), is shown here. Also, no need for it, but I’ve also included his FG%, not just his FT%.

As a rookie we see that he went for 70 FT% or above in Summer League, and in the NBA D-League. Those combined 50+ FTA weren’t an accident. He has a smooth, fluid stroke. There’s no hitch in it. He’s not throwing up shots like Bill Cartwright or Chuck Hayes here. And hitting for 70% is something that he did as a rookie, just not at the NBA regular season level. And I think part of that is concentration and comfort level. Rookies usually have a problem with both when they finally get into NBA games. But at a lower stress level Rudy did make his freebies.

For the season he did end up shooting under 50 FT%, but if you add up all of his free throws it summed to 70/120, a 58.33%. That’s not great. But it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen before. As a point of direct comparison, in his second season he went 204/326, which is an improvement to the lofty heights of 62.58%.

Looking at those two numbers that’s a +4.24% improvement. That’s not historic. But if you just look at the regular season numbers, going from 49.23% to 62.27%, that’s much better, a +13.04% improvement.

But 62% still isn’t epic. Especially not for a bigman in today’s era of basketball.

In his third season Rudy didn’t make any big jumps, but you can tell that NOT making a big jump was on his mind this off-season. Why? Because he’s unstoppable right now.

If you add up all of his free throws, Summer League, Preseason, Regular Season, and so forth, for his first three years you get the following numbers:

  • Games Played: 225
  • FTM 445 / FTA 754
  • FTM/G 1.98 / FTA/G 3.35
  • FT% 59.02%

Over 750 FTA is a pretty good sample size, especially over three seasons, and so many different types of games. And Rudy is about a 60% shooter on the books. Can he do better? I think so.

Again, seeing what he did when he was in lower stress situations (Summer League, D-League) as a rookie gives me hope. But what’s better than hope? Data. And so far this preseason he’s doing something else entirely.

He’s getting to the line 9.50 times a game, and he’s making 7.35 attempts. Really. So far this preseason he has gone 29 / 38 from the stripe. That’s a very healthy 76.32% — or Golden Era Karl Malone level shooting. The Mailman also shot under 50% from the free throw line as a rookie, but worked on it his entire career to flirt with being an 80% FT shooter at the end of it. Do I expect that of our Gobert? No. But it’s not about my expectations — it’s about Rudy’s desire to be great.

And he is showing more and more that he’s not in the NBA just because he’s tall and it’s a good job with nice benefits. No. He’s here because he wants to show that he’s better than the best players in the world at this. And fixing his weakenesses is something he’s serious about. Shaquille O’Neal never shot like this.

Is above 75% something we can expect of Rudy in the long run? I don’t know. I do have a hope that he can be in the 70%. But a +20.78% improvement from a rookie season can’t possibly be probable, right?

So let’s check out what the history books say.

Historical Cohort group:

The database at Basketball-Reference.com returned a pretty good list of players. It’s not the most complete database there could possibly be, but for our purposes, it’s the absolutely best and most complete database we have available. So, who are the rookie centers, 7’0 tall or taller, who shot under 50.00 FT% to start their careers? Some of them had NBA Careers, like Michael Olowokandi, Manute Bol, Andrew Bynum, Joel Przybilla, Chuck Nevitt, and new Utah Jazz associate coaching staff member DeSagana Diop. Some were in the NBA for only a moment, like Mike Dabich, Rastko Cvetkovic, and Dalibor Bagaric. But overall, there were over 30 players who fit that criteria — one of them being Rudy Gobert. (N=31, click here to see the list.)

The sum totals for this group is shooting 267 / 639 as a rookie, over 7549 NBA minutes and 683 NBA games. That’s an average of 0.39 FTM / 0.94 FTA per game, at the success rate of 41.78%.

Rookie Big Man Free Throw Shooting Cohort AllThatAmar, Data via Basketball-Reference.com

As you can see here, not a lot of these guys were stellar from the stripe — and perhaps it’s a skills thing and a physiology thing. Shooting isn’t traditionally a bigman skill. And shooting for someone 7’0 tall and above obeys different rules than shooting when you are 5’10 to 6’6 in height. Right? But that’s a topic for another day. But the main take-away here is that as a group they summed to that 267 / 639 value at the free throw line, an anemic 41.78%.

So, did any of these guys get better?

Let’s fast forward to the fourth NBA seasons for these 31 players (30 really, as Rudy is just starting his 4th). The first thing is that . . . only six of them made it to their fourth NBA season. And their summed values are 336 for 529 from the line, in 307 NBA Games, over 6703 minutes. That’s 1.09 for 1.72 per game. That’s not impressive. But by percentage alone, it’s an upgrade to 63.52%.

Fourth year bigman free throw shooting cohort AllThatAmar, Data via Basketball-Reference.com

Five of the six players improved -- the largest was Andrew Bynum’s +41.07 FT% increase, and the worst was DeSagana Diop’s -20.00 FT% decrease. Overall, the increase was +21.73% from rookie season FT% to fourth year FT%.

We’re looking for Rudy to improve by +20.00 FT% in order to get into that 70.00 FT% range. And the data shows that for the players that do make it to their fourth year, the average improvement is within the improvement range we want.

That’s really impressive and encouraging.

However, only one of those guys hit 70%, Bynum. Is Bynum’s outlier data any more or less of an outlier than Diop’s failures? I don’t know. Bynum was very young, only 21, in his fourth season. Rudy isn’t that old either, but I think his maturity and desire to get better will help him reach whatever targets he has set for himself.

Mehmet Okur is a big loss for the franchise in this regard. A bigman who can shoot is probably a better shooting coach than a much smaller man who has a completely different set of angles of attack on this problem. But whatever Rudy is doing seems to be working. Shooting almost 80% from the line in preseason may be fool’s gold. I hope not. Preseason is not always an indicator of regular season shooting success. (See: Trey Burke) But this is the data we have.

And I’m willing to accept that Gobert can be someone you can play at the end of games. DeAndre Jordan? Andre Drummond? Dwight Howard? Nope. Rudy Gobert? Oui. He’s going to get to the line with his physical play and his increasing star power in the league. And it really seems like he’s going to make the other team pay for it. #Gobzillovic