Rudy Gobert has already played his former team, the Utah Jazz, once this season. But that game was in the French center’s new home in Minnesota.
On Friday night, Gobert will return to a place once nicknamed Swat Lake City because of him, where he was affectionately called “The Stifle Tower” and where he earned NBA Defensive Player of the Year three times.
This game between the Jazz and the Timberwolves in Salt Lake City will mark the first time Gobert plays in Utah as the visitor after spending the first nine seasons of his NBA career swatting shots and stifling offenses for the home team.
Utah received handsome compensation in exchange for the 7-foot-1 center, including current Jazz contributors Malik Beasley, Walker Kessler and Jarred Vanderbilt along with Leandro Bolmaro and the traded Patrick Beverley and a treasure trove of four future first-round picks and a pick swap.
Gobert was a beloved figure in Jazzland, where he’s certain to receive a warm welcome in his return. After leading Minnesota to a 121-115 home victory over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday with 16 points and 21 rebounds, Gobert made it clear he’s anticipating playing in front of his old fans.
“There’s a lot of people that I have a lot of love for over there. There’s a lot of great memories,” Gobert told Minnesota reporters. “I just want to enjoy the moment and, of course, get a win.”
Gobert, who blossomed into an All-Star player under the tutelage of the also-departed Jazz coach Quin Snyder and alongside current Cleveland Cavalier Donovan Mitchell, hauled in 23 rebounds but only scored nine points with four turnovers and two blocks in Minnesota’s 132-126 overtime loss to visiting Utah earlier this season.
The Jazz enter this reunion off a thrilling, last-second 124-123 home win over the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday. This game caps a six-game homestand in which Utah has compiled a 3-2 record. Along with Gobert’s homecoming, the Jazz are eagerly anticipating the return of Mike Conley, who has missed 10 games with a knee injury.
Conley is listed as questionable for Friday, as is forward Lauri Markannen (illness).
Gobert’s return will be the biggest story, though. Unlike Mitchell, who reportedly wanted out of Utah, Gobert envisioned spending his entire career in the Beehive State before new CEO Danny Ainge hit the roster reboot button.
“In this league when a player gets traded, usually people try to only focus on the basketball. But the way I am, things are bigger than just basketball,” Gobert said. “The community, there’s relationships. There’s a lot of people that always had my back. … I feel the love.”
Players involved in the Gobert trade helped Utah pull off an improbable win over the Warriors. Beasley, who was with Minnesota for two-plus seasons, scored 18 points, made a key late 3-pointer and dished out the game-winning assist.
Kessler had his first start in the absence of Markkanen and finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots in the win. Interestingly, the 7-foot-1 center, whose move to Utah was preceded by being picked 22nd overall by Memphis and then being traded to Minnesota, averages more blocks per game (1.8) than Gobert (1.3) in nearly half as much playing time.
Their contributions helped Utah improve to a surprising 15-12, which is three wins better than Minnesota’s 12-12 mark.
“I continue to be amazed by our team’s resilience. They never flinch in weird moments of the game or odd lineups,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “We are imperfect, but we’ve got heart. The end of the game reflected that.”
–Field Level Media