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Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) dunks the ball during the second half in an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Salt Lake City. The Pistons won 95-92. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Rudy Gobert could be even better in 2016-17

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Rudy Gobert rightfully has one of the best nicknames in the league. The French center, affectionately known as “The Stifle Tower,” couldn’t better fit the description. At 7’1″, with the longest wingspan in NBA combine history of just over 7’8″, he has perfect length to play the role of a Kraken (that gigantic, octopus-like sea creature if you didn’t know) in the paint, endless arms reaching out to smother opponents as they attempt to drive to the rim.

Gobert has already emerged as one of the best (or the best) rim protector in the NBA. Breaking onto the scene in 2013-14 playing 9.6 minutes per game as a rookie, he displayed signs of his potential and physical intimidation. Playing over 26 minutes a night the following year, he averaged 2.3 blocks per game.

Gobert had arrived.

Upping his playing time to 31.7 minutes per game last season, Gobert was at his best. With career-highs in points (9.1), rebounds (11) and assists (1.5) to go along with 2.2 blocks, he’s fully immersed himself as a leader in the bright future of the Utah Jazz.

But next season could be even better.

For a start, being healthy, hopefully for the full season for the sake of the Jazz, will be one bonus. Gobert missed all of December and the first three games of January due to a Grade 2 MCL Sprain. If he doesn’t miss 21 games again next season, that’s an immediate help. Especially to Utah’s win record and playoff seeding.

The real area of improvement for Gobert, though, and the Jazz’s interior defense as a whole, comes down to the acquisitions made this summer.

The health of point guard Dante Exum helps immediately. He missed last season with an ACL tear, and heading back for what will now be his second season, having his speed, size (6’6″), and 6’9″ wingspan defending the perimeter again will be appreciated from day one.

Then there’s Joe Johnson. While he won’t be the team’s top perimeter defender by any means, Johnson still provides more size at 6’7″ to play between shooting guard and small forward, further bolstering the increased versatility and depth of the 2016-17 Jazz.

George Hill is the biggest difference maker, though. At least in terms of defense. Hill, often negatively remembered for his part in the 2011 draft night trade that sent him to San Antonio in exchange for rookie Kawhi Leonard, has been underrated for most of his career. That’s still the case today.

Yet, after being more than reliable enough to set up the offense and operate more effectively off the ball, shooting a career-high 40.8 percent from three last season, and bringing an obvious defensive upgrade to the Jazz’s backcourt, there’s a lot to like about this addition. To help replace the heavy workload of Raul Neto and Trey Burke from last season along with Shelvin Mack, Hill looks even better.

Again, providing a 6’9″ wingspan, Hill completes a backcourt rotation highlighted by himself, Exum, Alec Burks and Rodney Hood: four long, athletic guards, capable of guarding multiple positions and switching between them with ease.

Dec. 3, 2015 - GEORGE HILL (3) drives to the hoop. The Portland Trail Blazers hosted the Indiana Pacers at the Moda Center. (Photo by David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Dec. 3, 2015 – GEORGE HILL (3) drives to the hoop. The Portland Trail Blazers hosted the Indiana Pacers at the Moda Center. (Photo by David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Together, with the arrival of Hill, the return of Exum and the improved health of Burks (who missed 51 games last season), they combine to raise the Jazz’s defensive potential and resilience at the perimeter.

Which is where the formidable backline of “The Stifle Tower” comes into play.

Using his endless reach, solid quickness, long strides and excellent instincts and timing, Gobert was terrific last season. He can thwart opponents brave enough to try and finish past him inside, close out on opponents further away from the basket, smother drives down the lane, and cover pick-and-rolls at a stifling level, too.

He does everything you want from a center in charge of locking down the interior. As a result, Gobert ranked first in opponent field goal percentage at the rim among players averaging at least 20 minutes per game, recording a stifling mark of 41 percent. Players also shot a mere 48.6 percent within five feet of the basket against Gobert, falling victim to those instincts and that Kraken-esque physical stature.

Lining up next to the physicality of Derrick Favors, Gobert was the backline of the Jazz defense and the MVP of the defensive team that surrendered the second-fewest points per game (95.9), per ESPN. The very threat of Gobert sparks nerves in opponents when they’re considering taking the ball inside, which is a major asset when he isn’t even blocking shots.

But even the best rim protectors in history will have a tougher time defending the paint if their support at the perimeter isn’t doing its job.

If outside defenders are late to switch and rotate or failing to prevent easy drives into space from their opponents, there’s far more opportunity for the other team to create better looks inside and easier lanes to the basket. If a center is left out of position, constantly having to help and compensate for the mistakes of his perimeter players if easy lanes to the basket open up, their life gets a lot more difficult. The defense will suffer, and the sheer energy of the shot blocker will be drained.

Obviously, Gobert didn’t have a useless perimeter defense last season. However, it wasn’t the Jazz’s forte. In large part because of Gobert, they ranked ninth in opponent field goal percentage within five feet (56.4). From three-point range, they ranked just 18th (35.7).

Even though opposing three-point percentage doesn’t indicate how effectively perimeter players prevent drives inside, it does indicate that they have a harder time forcing opponents off the arc and into contested shots closer to the basket, thus more high-quality looks and greater efficiency from deep.

Cutting down threes is key to great defense in today’s NBA. It’s a major reason why the San Antonio Spurs (first in opponent three-point percentage at 33.1) led the league in defensive efficiency last season.

The health of Exum and Burks combined with the addition of Hill improves a backcourt capable of doing just that. They can work on reducing three-point success, closely contend drives and attacks off closeouts, and channel players inside to Gobert to allow him to maintain good positioning and end plays that have already started to falter. For a player who’s never struggled guarding the paint in the past anyway, that’s a scary thought for Utah’s opponents.

The loss of Trevor Booker’s rebounding, energy and hustle off the bench after he signed with Brooklyn is the only real negative from this summer. Although, the promise of sophomore Trey Lyles and the increased minutes he’ll receive in his second season makes that easier to deal with.

All in all, the Jazz got better. Much better. Projecting them as the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference is relatively easy to do because of it, with improvements to their spacing and depth (with Hill, Johnson and Boris Diaw) and defense leading the way.

With an elevated supporting cast around him, Rudy Gobert should be able to make the Jazz’s defense — and himself — look even tougher in 2016-17.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, unless noted otherwise.

Rudy Gobert could be even better in 2016-17

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