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Gobert's career-night from the free-throw line highlights his offensive evolution

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) goes past Charlotte Hornets defenders during an NBA game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) goes past Charlotte Hornets defenders during an NBA game at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. (Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY β€” Donovan Mitchell didn't dance around the question: How much more confident is he seeing Rudy Gobert walk up to the free-throw line compared to four years ago?

"I don't mean this disrespectfully, but a lot," Mitchell said.

Mitchell has good reasons for that answer, too.

After Gobert went 15 of 16 from the free-throw line in Utah's 112-102 win over the Charlotte Hornets Monday, the All-Star center is on pace for his best season at the charity stripe of his career. The 15 free throws made were a career-high.

It's not by accident, either.

About two years ago, Gobert began the process of reworking his shot. He slowly developed a better free throw, and had gone from the days of shooting below 50% to consistently hitting around 60% of his freebies.

But to Gobert, that wasn't good enough. Teams occasionally used a "hack-a-Rudy" strategy to slow down the Jazz and Gobert wanted to be able to be more of a threat down low; if he could make free throws, teams couldn't just simply foul him when he got the ball.

Together, with the Jazz coaching staff and his personal coach Fernando Nandes, the work of breaking down and rebuilding his shooting motion began. He spent time after practice putting up reps, and he got extra sessions with Nandes at his home at nights.

The result is a slightly different form, and much more confidence.

"I can feel myself getting more and more comfortable," Gobert said. "I know how important it is for me to take that step."

A glimpse into how important it is for Gobert to improve at the free-throw line was on showcase Monday.

Against the Wizards on Saturday, there were multiple times the Jazz missed Gobert down low with his mismatch; Gobert finished with just four shot attempts and the Jazz settled for isolation plays for much of that game. They apparently worked on some things between games.

Gobert was heavily targeted against the Hornets and it yielded good results: 23 points that included some good kick-outs to boot.

"The biggest thing is that he got to the line 16 times," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "That shows his balance and his patience. He's not just trying to get it up to the rim. He's more conscious of where his defender is. He was making them foul or he was gonna dunk."

Gobert has done a better job and has sealed his defenders in the paint; but it's more than that, he's been keeping his hands high to give guards a target to throw to. If he doesn't bring the ball down, there's not much left for smaller defenders to do but to hack a way.

That's when the free throw improvement is really important. If the Jazz can feed him the ball in the paint against smaller defender, and he can make free throws at a high clip (he's not going to always be 15 of 16), it could act as a deterrent for teams to go small β€” or even give the Jazz an advantage against those lineups.

"We are throwing him the ball, I think, a lot more this year than we have in previous years β€” now he's getting fouled, now he's punishing switches," Mitchell said.

The Jazz are also finding him on the short roll, with the pass often reaching Gobert before the smaller defender can fully switch in order to give him a chance to punish smaller lineups.

Where that could really be beneficial? The playoffs. The Jazz have been knocked out by small-ball lineups in five of the last six years.

"If they want to foul me, I have to punish them at the line," Gobert said. "It changes game."

And he's changed his to get it done.

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