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Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert turns the boos into cheers

Three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year is leading the NBA’s No. 1 defense

SAN FRANCISCO – “Rudy … Rudy … Rudy…”

This season, those chants at home games have been music to the ears of Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert. While athletes often say they don’t care what fans and the public say, Gobert has no problem saying that he does care. With the Timberwolves off to a 7-2 start, it has sounded much better to hears chants and cheers at home rather than the jeers that Gobert & Co. heard early last season.

“Whether people hate me or love me, I’m going to keep being me, give 200 percent when I’m on the court and be the best Rudy I can be,” Gobert said following the Timberwolves’ practice Nov. 11. “I’m going to keep spreading love off the court. But, obviously, when things are good, people are going to appreciate you and what you do.”

The Gobert love in Minneapolis is for good reason.

The three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year is anchoring the best defense in the NBA. The Timberwolves entered Tuesday No. 1 in defensive rating (102), opponents’ points per game (103.1), opponents’ field goal percentage (.418) and opponents’ 3-point percentage (.313). Gobert also entered the week third in the NBA in rebounds (12.8). The 7-foot-1, 266-pounder also earned his eighth double-double of the season with 10 points and 10 rebounds along with five blocked shots in a 116-110 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Sunday night.

“Make no mistake about it, Gobert has always been hell of a player,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “I realize he can be controversial and people have different opinions of him. But this guy has been defensive player of the year multiple times. Whatever team he’s on is going to have a formidable defense.”

“It takes a lot of time to understand how I can impact games. Obviously, I’m healthier this season and playing much better, too,” Gobert said.

From left to right: Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, center Rudy Gobert and head coach Chris Finch attend Gobert’s introductory news conference on July 6, 2022, at Target Center in Minneapolis.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

“I try to stay off my emotions, but I’m a very emotional human being. I felt that with the fan base, maybe I wasn’t completely welcomed. But at the same time, I knew that I had to earn the respect in a way and that’s part of it. When you’re good, people are going to cheer for you. When you’re not good, people are going to criticize you …”

On July 6, 2022, the Wolves made a stunning blockbuster move by acquiring Gobert from the Utah Jazz.

In return, the Jazz acquired four first-round draft picks, guards Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Leandro Bolmaro, forward Jarred Vanderbilt, the draft rights to center Walker Kessler and a pick swap. During nine seasons in Utah, Gobert was a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year with the Jazz and an NBA All-Defensive first-team selection six consecutive seasons. Gobert was also an NBA All-Star from 2020-22. He averaged 12.4 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game during his career with Utah and is the franchise leader in field goal percentage (.653).

“When the trade happened, I was really excited about the opportunity. But at the same time, I knew it was going to be a process. I always say great things take time,” Gobert said.

There were high hopes for Gobert, 2023 All-Star Anthony Edwards, three-time All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns and the Wolves entering the 2022-23 season. The Wolves, however, opened with a disappointing 9-8 record. On Nov. 22, 2022, Gobert expressed disappointment with Wolves fans after they booed in the second and third quarter during a 105-101 victory over the Miami Heat.

“I just don’t appreciate people that come in to boo your team. When you’re a fan, you’ve got to support your team in the tough or the good moments. There’s no team in NBA history that only had good moments, so if you’re not going to support us in the tough moments, just stay home,” Gobert said after the game.

Gobert said he wasn’t embraced by Wolves fans as he hoped during his first season despite averaging 13.4 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. Also hurting his cause was that the Wolves were eliminated in the first round of the 2023 NBA playoffs by the eventual champion Denver Nuggets.

While Gobert was frustrated by the boos, he also believed he had to earn the cheers.

“I try to stay off my emotions, but I’m a very emotional human being,” Gobert said. “I felt that with the fan base, maybe I wasn’t completely welcomed. But at the same time, I knew that I had to earn the respect in a way and that’s part of it. When you’re good, people are going to cheer for you. When you’re not good, people are going to criticize you …

“When I look back now, it’s part of the process. I guess it comes with the expectations. It’s not something magical where [instantly], ‘Rudy is here. We’re not in the NBA Finals. We’re not the best defense in the league.’ Maybe they were [disappointed]. It’s part of the process. It wasn’t great to hear some of the things that I heard, but I had to turn off the emotions a little bit and focus on winning.”

Along with the tough fans, Wolves coach Chris Finch said that Gobert was challenged in adjusting to a new life in Minneapolis after spending nine seasons in Salt Lake City. Gobert agreed but declined to elaborate.

“After nine years in Utah, it just probably took him a little while to feel settled,” Finch said. “This year, he’s healthier. He comes in with a mindset to dominate. He’s really bought into some of the changes that we’ve asked of him. We learned a lot from him last year. But we also learned that we know we needed to do things slightly differently, and he just feels like a rejuvenated 23-year-old.

“I just think it’s hard for these guys when you get traded after being somewhere for nine years to a place you’ve never known. But looking back, I’m sure it must’ve bothered him a little bit, just getting settled and the fans gave him unnecessarily a rough ride last year for us.”

Minneapolis Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert (left) talks with guard Anthony Edwards (right) in the third quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans at Target Center on Nov. 8 in Minneapolis.

David Berding/Getty Images

Gobert and the Wolves are off to a much better start this season. Minnesota has won six consecutive games, is 5-0 at home and in the Western Conference, and has won seven of its first nine games for just the second time in franchise history. The athletic and exciting Edwards has much of the spotlight, as he entered the week averaging 27.9 points, while Gobert is anchoring the NBA’s top defense.

“I feel like I’m playing at a much higher level than I was early last season,” Gobert said. “But the main thing, too, is our group level of accountability, awareness, toughness, our attention [to detail], just our pride [is better]. We take a lot of pride in stopping the other team. I thought last [season], just like every young team, we needed to get those habits, especially transition defense, defensive rebounding, all the little things that I thought was crippling or defense last year and overshadowing the great things that we were doing.

“Now we’re about to get rid of most of those and now people can finally understand that we have a very unique team, a unique defensive team with a combination of size, toughness, athletic ability and the mindset that we have. We have dogs.”

So, what is the key for Gobert’s improved play?

“He looks like he is more confident like what I was used to seeing in Utah,” said Timberwolves guard Mike Conley, who was a former Jazz teammate of Gobert’s. “His presence is just different. He’s demanding the ball in the post, wanting to get opportunities down there. Guys are looking for him. I think he feels really involved early in the season offensively. People don’t understand, if you get him the ball offensively, he picks it up on the defensive side.”

“His teammates just had to learn to play with him, learn to trust him, and it takes time,” Finch said.

Basketball Hall of Famers Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace each won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award a record four times. Gobert says he is motivated to join that company and add another piece of hardware to his trophy case: a first NBA championship. The Timberwolves have not won an NBA title since coming to the NBA in 1989.

“I always say that great things take time,” Gobert said. “And people who have opinions have very short memories of life. My biggest talent is that I never stop and I never give up. I’m grateful for all things that I’ve been able to accomplish, and my goal is always to win the championship, be the best way I can be every day.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.