Dante Exum and Rudy Gobert started the 2014/15 season on the Utah bench, both guys contributed sporadically at both ends, but were not central to what the Jazz were doing. That’s because the Jazz weren’t 100% sure what they were doing. They sure as hell do now.
Often the pair would get in the game together and unleash a flailing blanket of limbs and defensive commitment which gave the Jazz second unit an identity centred around the attributes of these raw long-limbed youngsters. They stood out in the second unit, not just for their defence, but the way their games would consistently compliment each other as they slowly built a nice one-two combination.
As Exum would dribble at the top of the key, he would looks for a roll or baseline move from Gobert to get the big man an easy bucket. The combination was effective and aesthetically wonderful. Exum’s lightning first step and Gobert’s finishing at the rim were the highlights of the second unit…along with those well-timed Joe Ingles cross-court passes.
Now that the pair have been promoted to the starting unit, we are seeing the two link up more and more, but now it’s on the other side of the ball where we’re seeing things work at a frighteningly high and rapid level.
It’s no coincidence the Jazz’s meteoric rise in defensive competence has paralleled with the promotion of the Stifle Tower and ‘I need to think of a cool defensive nickname for Exum’
Gobert’s defence has been monstrous since the All-Star break where the Jazz have allowed just 89.7 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in the league.
Oh yeah and plays like this:
But it’s not just what Gobert does inside the paint, its what his presence allows Exum to do. Exum’s defence has been terrific since the All-Star break, the Jazz are posting a defensive rating of 88.9 when Exum is on the floor!!!! A lot of the Jazz’s best five-man units defensively include Exum and Gobert.
Small sample size, but this one’s outrageous.
Exum’s foot speed and scrambling recovery were the first two things to stand out. His opponent would often lose him, but then all of a sudden, Exum would be back in position and blocking your three-point attempt.
A reluctance to over-commit on the perimeter and have your man blow by you has created plenty of these scenarios, but now we’re seeing a much more aggressive Exum when it comes to gambling on steals, picking passing lanes and generating transition buckets.
Dante is becoming better and better at this, but the security of playing in front of one of the best rim protectors in the league, gives you a confidence to ‘go for it’ more, knowing you have a back-up plan to potentially clean up any scraps.
“Knowing Rudy is behind me and be able to be that rim protector, that helps me out to be a bit more disruptive on the defensive end,” Exum said in a teleconference with the Asian media today.
“I can take a few more gambles so he’s definitely a good asset to have on the team.”
We have seen this kind of confidence and gambling on defence from a lot of point guards recently, but they all have a common thread, an astounding big man to have their back. Westbrook has Ibaka, Curry has Bogut and Chris Paul runs with DeAndre Jordan, it’s no coincidence they are two of the top three in the league in steals per game and Paul eighth.
It’s not just Exum and Gobert, the whole Jazz team has bought in, but more importantly, they have had enough time around each other so the increase in communication and awareness is obvious. With plenty of new faces on the roster this season, chemistry was always going to take a while and swingman Joe Ingles believes the team has really settled into itself as far as getting everyone on the same page.
“I mean we haven’t done anything different [lately] or anything like that, I think its more the group getting to know each other, having more time together and having more time with the coaches in the system,” Ingles said.
“Obviously there’s a few new pieces from last year, including the coach. Things just take time and I think we’ve gotten better over the season slowly.”
With five new, young faces playing key roles on this team, along with a wily young coach in Quin Snyder, the Jazz haven’t completely figured it out, but if this recent period doesn’t make you think they are heading down the right path, then I don’t know what will.