Timberwolves’ Rudy Gobert is doing more than returning to form: ‘I think it’s the best I’ve been’

After yet another performance early in the season in which he flew through the air, swatted shots emphatically and covered as much ground as one could account for on defense, Rudy Gobert was asked if he felt his old self again.

“Not even my old self. I feel better than I’ve ever felt because I feel like I’m stronger than I’ve been,” he said earlier this season. “And I just see the experience that I have now, and you add that to the rest of the abilities that I have, I think that’s the best that I’ve been.”

Of all the things that have keyed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 5-2 start to the season, their suffocating defense and their early emergence as a threat in the Western Conference, one factor towers over the rest, quite literally. After a first season in Minnesota that was underwhelming at best and concerning at worst, Gobert has been overpowering to start Year 2.

His latest dominant effort came on Wednesday night against the short-handed New Orleans Pelicans. He put up 17 points, 21 rebounds and two blocks in a 122-101 victory, providing the backbone for a “there’s no way we’re losing this game” performance from a Timberwolves team that routinely had letdowns against undermanned or underperforming teams last season.

Ever since the Wolves let a 21-point second-half lead go in Atlanta in their third game of the season, they have attacked their opponents with intensity and focus. They have now won four straight games, including against heavyweights Denver and Boston, baring their teeth on defense with a ferociousness that has rarely been seen in these parts.

It all starts with Gobert. This is the center they thought they were getting last season, a destructive presence in the paint able to wreck games almost by himself. The version that wore a Timberwolves jersey in the first two months of last season just wasn’t that guy. He barely participated in training camp because he was banged up after a run to the EuroBasket finals with France. When he finally hit the court, he was slower to react while learning a completely new team that was not built around his unique abilities.

Now he is scrambling from the paint to the corner to block 3-point attempts, as he did twice against Utah’s John Collins last weekend, harassing stretch bigs that draw him out of the paint and elevating for dunks like he rarely did last season.

“He’s back to the Rudy that we had to face for many years, which is a real problem,” Finch said.

He reported to camp this season completely healthy and fully aware of the doubts about his ability at age 31 to bounce back. Big men can tail off quickly as they get into their 30s, but Gobert has looked much quicker and more athletic in the early going this season. Couple that with a much greater comfort level in a new city and with new teammates and the results have been noticeable.

“I’m going to do whatever it takes to set the tone for the team and be who I can be,” Gobert said. “I know that if I’m doing those things, there’s only one person who can do the things I can do defensively. It’s about being consistent.”

The Wolves have the No. 1 ranked defense in the league, and Gobert has been at the center of it. After averaging just 1.4 blocks per game last season, his lowest since his rookie year in 2013-14, Gobert came into the Pelicans game averaging 2.2. The Wolves have a 111.7 offensive rating with him on the court and a 98.9 defensive rating (his D-rating was 110.3 last season).

He has stifled some of the very best players in the league, including Nikola Jokic (1 of 7 when guarded by Gobert last week), Kristaps Porziņģis (2 of 6), Tyler Herro (0 of 4), Jamal Murray (0 of 3) and Jayson Tatum (0 of 2), per league stats.


He has always believed in his abilities, even when things were going poorly last season because of what he saw around him. Even when players were openly frustrated with how things were going on the court, Gobert watched how Finch and the coaching staff continued to hold the team’s best players accountable for the mistakes that were happening. That gave him encouragement that the problems could be addressed, eventually.

“If you were bullshitting, they were telling you they were bullshitting,” Gobert said. “I think it’s really important, if you want to build a championship-caliber team, to have that type of relationship and Ant, KAT, all these guys, they’re listening. I think that’s a credit to them. It shows that they want to win.”

The coaches pressed Gobert as well. He was used to playing defense a certain way in Utah for nine years, being the sun in the Jazz solar system that every other player orbited. Finch met with Gobert this summer and told them they needed him to be more open-minded to doing things differently to cater to the strengths of his teammates around him.

“Being in rotations, being on different spots on the floor, upping your pressure and that kind of stuff,” Finch said. “He’s been all-in on it and that’s made all the difference. He’s been the tone-setter. Mostly you set a defensive tone on the ball, but he’s been able to set it with his activity on and off the ball. … He’s been way more amenable to doing some things that we need him to do.

Now that Jaden McDaniels is back from a calf injury, Gobert finds himself surrounded by dudes who can straight-up guard. Edwards can sink his teeth into a ballhandler when he decides to, Nickeil Alexander-Walker is dogged on the perimeter and veteran Mike Conley knows who to slip screens and short-circuit defensive penetration.

“Being able to keep your mind open and being able to adapt, I think this is the strength of the best teams in the world,” Gobert said. “And I feel like right now we are creating our identity. And soon enough, I think people are gonna have to adapt to us and not the opposite.”

He has been more fluid on offense as well. He does have 12 turnovers in seven games, a number that needs to be curtailed as the Wolves move through the season. But the Wolves are finding ways to put him in positions where he has always been most successful, trying to minimize his limitations and take advantage of the real gravity that he commands.

His screen setting, lob catching and offensive rebounding are all showing up more often this season, perhaps the result of improved chemistry after a full season together in 2022-23 and the midseason swap of point guards from D’Angelo Russell to his old friend from Utah, Conley.

“He’s 100 percent sure of himself,” Conley said. “He knows that we trust him, we want him to be himself. He’s looking great so far. Hopefully, he continues to do it.”

Conley learned in Utah where exactly Gobert likes the ball and how best to utilize his screens to generate good offense. The faith that Conley has in Gobert has trickled down to the rest of the team, assuring the younger players in the Wolves locker room that Gobert has a lot to give on the offensive end of the floor. Where some players gritted their teeth last season when Gobert would mishandle a pass or blow a layup, they will celebrate with him this season after he throws down a dunk off of an offensive rebound.

Karl-Anthony Towns scored 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting against the Pelicans, an encouraging sign after entering the game shooting 38 percent from the field. Edwards had 26 points and eight assists and was a plus-35 for the game, and Conley went 4 of 5 from 3-point land to help the Wolves cruise to the victory. One game after going 2 of 11 from the free-throw line, Gobert was 9 of 12 to help keep the Pelicans at bay.

“It’s fun. You’re able to press up on the defensive end, just knowing that he has your back and being able to trust him,” said Shake Milton, who had 10 points in 19 minutes. “And then, he’s always giving me words of encouragement. Telling me to be aggressive.”

This is all so early in the season that no grand conclusions can yet be drawn. Gobert has spoken carefully about the success the Wolves are having, urging teammates to stay committed to the weight room and honing their craft. He knows the Timberwolves have won nothing yet. Slumps and injuries can happen in a long season that derail some of the good vibes the Wolves have going. Will his body hold up for an entire season? Can he have the same success in the playoffs after his Jazz teams often disappointed in the postseason? Those questions will be answered in due time.

For now, the Timberwolves are reveling in Gobert’s rejuvenation. They sent five players, including Walker Kessler and Jarred Vanderbilt, to Utah for Gobert in the summer of 2022, then watched him look sluggish for a lot of the season. Now he is carrying himself like the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year he was in Utah and urging the Timberwolves to prepare themselves for a long run in the playoffs.

“We’re hungry. We know it’s early in the season, but we’ve been setting the tone,” Gobert said. “I like the foundation that we’re putting together right now and we started (to build) since day one of training camp.”

Almost as important as Gobert’s play on the court has been the vibe shift in the locker room. The adjustment for Gobert and his new teammates was hard last season. Frustration permeated the locker room in the first few months of the season while the Wolves struggled to make the pieces fit together. Now, it is a harmonious place. They are playing off of each other well on the court and enjoying each other off of it.

As Gobert got dressed after the win over New Orleans that completed a 4-0 homestand, he pulled on a brown shirt bedazzled with stones and put rings on his fingers before addressing the media. Edwards hollered, “OK, big Ruuuuu!!”

Naz Reid bellowed, “I see you!” as laughter filled the locker room, playful banter that was rarely heard last season.

“As long as you keep playing like that,” Edwards said with a wide smile, “you can wear whatever you want.”

(Photo of Rudy Gobert: Brad Rempel / USA Today)

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