With the help of an innovative coach, Rudy Gobert aims to convince his legion of critics

Rudy Gobert knows what is coming. He knows that a fourth NBA Defensive Player of the Year award is almost assuredly his after being the best defensive player on the best defensive team all season long.

He also knows that will do nothing to quiet the legion of skeptics who are ready to pile on should he fail to break through in the playoffs.

Gobert is one of the NBA’s great development stories, the gangly teen who has morphed into a chiseled All-Star. The former 27th pick who played in the D-League as a rookie before blossoming into a generational defender. But he remains one of the league’s biggest targets from those who believe he doesn’t have the offensive skill to merit all the money and accolades that have come his way.

Now that the playoffs are here, the scrutiny will only increase. Gobert’s third-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves face the sixth-seeded Phoenix Suns in the first round, beginning with Game 1 at 2:30 p.m. (CT) Saturday in Minneapolis. The Suns like to play small, a lineup construction that has given Gobert’s teams difficulty in past postseasons and three decisive victories over the Wolves in this regular season.

Four years ago, Gobert set out on a mission to refine his game. The hunger to be more than just a defensive stalwart brought him to a Brazilian coach who specializes in neuroscience and cognitive development. The work the pair have been doing together has Gobert — and his teammates — feeling more confident than ever in his ability to punish teams offensively as the Wolves look for their first playoff series win in 20 years.

“I think when the playoffs come, teams are going to try to adjust to what I do,” Gobert said. “I think being able to have these little extra weapons is going to be key for us.”

Take a look at Gobert’s basic counting stats — 14.0 points, 12.9 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 66.1 percent field-goal shooting — and there isn’t a real noticeable difference from most of his 11-year career. Dive deeper into his shooting profile, finishing package and expanded role in the Timberwolves offense and a different story starts to unfold.

Gobert is earning more and-1 opportunities by learning how to finish through contact and scoring more unassisted baskets thanks to an improved handle. And if that isn’t enough, the teammates who would occasionally wince at a dropped pass or grit their teeth at a turnover during a challenging first season in Minnesota have given him a much warmer embrace this season.

“I think trusting Rudy,” Anthony Edwards said earlier this month when asked about the difference between last season’s 42-win team and the one that won 56 games this season. “I think that’s the main thing. However many players on the team that plays … we all trust Rudy, like, together.”

Fernando Pereira may have envisioned Gobert earning the trust of different teammates when they began working together while with the Utah Jazz in 2020, but the results are exactly what he believed could happen. Using unconventional drills aimed at targeting the neuropathways of the brain, Pereira and Gobert have worked on sharpening his fluidity, decision-making, anticipation and reaction time.

Compared to the first season the two worked together in 2020-21, Gobert’s turnovers are down 10 percent, assists are up 26 percent and the amount of field goals he has made after taking two dribbles is up 64 percent since 2019.

“This is the future of sports,” Pereira said.

Their unique work together is about to face its biggest test. If Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns cannot make the Suns pay for playing small, the Timberwolves will be in big trouble. This is the moment for which he and Pereira have been waiting.

Pereira grew up playing basketball in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He was not the most athletic player on his teams but always found that his understanding of the game helped him get by. He played for the Brazilian U18, U17 and U16 national teams as a kid and spent 18 months playing professionally before earning a bachelor’s degree in physical education and a master’s degree in materials engineering while also doing post-graduate education emphasizing motor control, learning and development and a specialization in the neuroscience of movement.

Pereira quickly became interested in neuroscience and set out to learn how the brain processes information and interacts with the body. He saw how players such as Denver’s Nikola Jokić and Luka Dončić of the Dallas Mavericks controlled games with their minds as much as with their considerable physical skills, and a philosophy started to form.

“The brain of each guy is the secret,” Pereira said. “Sure, Jokić is unbelievable. He’s also slow. This is a neuroscience of revolution. Jokić, bro, he doesn’t jump. He doesn’t run. But his decision-making, his brain skills are unbelievable.”

Pereira noticed that most coaches address player weaknesses by running them through single-skill drills over and over again. In conventional circles, repetition is what yields improvement. But Pereira started to tailor drills to improve a player’s coordination and anticipation, to overloading his senses to force him to make quicker decisions.

For instance, Pereira, who goes by the nickname “Nandes,” might have a player not just attempt a turnaround jumper or layup near the rim. He might stand behind the player, toss a ball into the air as soon as the player turns and require that player to first hit the ball in the air before shooting his ball. Or he might have a player dribble with one hand and keep a balloon afloat with his other. Drills like these focus on decision-making and hand-eye coordination and getting the entire body to work in concert with the brain.

Pereira’s theory is that the basketball environment a player finds himself in during a game changes quickly. If a player is driving to the basket, defenders can move in front of him in the blink of an eye. Maybe one on the perimeter swipes at the ball as he goes by. So drills should throw multiple stressors, forcing the brain to process different stimuli quickly and help the player adapt on the fly.

While in Brazil, Pereira befriended Raul Neto, who spent eight years in the NBA with the Utah Jazz, Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers. Neto saw some of those unique concentration drills and asked Pereira to come back to the United States to watch games and practices during Jazz training camp in 2017.

It was there that Pereira met Jazz coach Igor Kokoškov, an assistant on Quin Snyder’s staff. Neto told Kokoškov about Pereira’s coaching techniques, and Kokoškov was intrigued. He recalled asking Pereira what he thought after watching his first NBA game. Pereira told him he watched the players closely from the time they arrived at the arena, to getting dressed, getting their ankles taped, eating a pregame meal and going through warmups.

“You guys touched everything. Everything but the brain,” Pereira told Kokoškov. “The brain is still sleeping. After the jump ball, your brain has to be ready to react. That’s something you guys didn’t do at all.”

Kokoškov, now an assistant under Snyder with the Atlanta Hawks, paused as he thought back to what he said was a “life-changing” meeting in his NBA coaching career.

“That was an interesting point of view,” he said.

Kokoškov invited him to dinner and then asked to watch Pereira put Neto and point guard Ricky Rubio through a workout the next day. That turned into an invitation to attend practices in the preseason.

“That changed my life,” Pereira said. “Because Igor was curious to know more.”

Kokoškov spent one season as head coach of the Phoenix Suns in 2018-19 and brought Pereira in again for the preseason to work with his players and coaches. Pereira worked directly with Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges and also went about trying to convince the rest of the coaching staff that neurology played an important role in player development. It has not always been easy.

Gobert hears skeptics in the NBA media world. Pereira runs into them in the coaching fraternity.

“It’s a revolution. A revolution changes things around us and people are skeptical and afraid,” Kokoškov said. “We’re all territorial, especially in big operations like the NBA. We’re just fighting for our territory and any unknown territory for us as coaches, we’re resisting.”

Pereira was back coaching and teaching in Brazil in 2019 when he decided to take a chance. He left his job and took a student visa to the U.S., enrolling in English classes in Salt Lake City. Kokoškov arranged a meeting with Snyder, who was still coaching the Jazz, for Pereira to present his theory and showcase his drills.

Snyder was convinced. He brought Pereira in and had him start to work with the Jazz G League players. Gobert took notice of the work Pereira was doing with the players. Neto also recommended him to Gobert, opening the door for collaboration.

In Gobert, Pereira found what he needed — a willing learner. Players can be skeptical of approaches as different and complex as those that Pereira employs. But Gobert has always been intellectually curious. There is always a book in his locker. His is a mind more open to the abstract. Some eyes would glaze over when Pereira would start to educate on cognitive responses in the brain. Gobert leans into it, searching to understand why things are different for him than some other players.

“I enjoyed it because there was also a challenging aspect to it,” Gobert said of his early days with Pereira. “It’s not like you just do 100 hook shots. You’ve been challenged and it challenges your brain to be put in different situations, which, I think for me, was what I needed.”

Looking to make his strides during the pandemic, when players were limited to one-on-one interactions with coaches, Gobert hired Pereira to start the 2020-21 season.

They set out on a plan together, focusing on Gobert’s decision-making, scoring versatility and fluidity of movement. The early days of the partnership laid clear how much work there was to be done. Pereira started to use soccer-based drills to get Gobert’s lower body to catch up to his upper-body motor skills. He would dribble a ball with each hand while Pereira kicked a soccer ball to him, forcing his brain to align the upper and the lower.

“The craziest part is that after a month that I got to starting, my footwork got a lot better,” Gobert said. “And my coordination got better. And I started to feel it on the basketball court.”

Pereira designed a program to get Gobert’s footwork to be more nimble and his hand-eye coordination to be sharper so that he could better catch the ball in traffic.

His drills included balance work, distraction, a ball rolled through his legs, a slap on the shoulder and anything to mimic the sensory overload the brain can endure during a game. If Gobert could stay focused and make the right decisions during the drills, then it would translate to the games.

“We changed the brain wave,” Pereira said. “It’s not just repetition.”

None of it was natural for Gobert. It has been a gradual path toward improvement. And that’s why he thinks it is working.

“I realize the more uncomfortable I was, the more I was learning, the better I was getting,” he said.

When Gobert was traded from Utah to Minnesota in 2022, Wolves coach Chris Finch promised to put him in more actions and showcase more of what he believed was untapped potential on offense.

The first season did not go as planned. Gobert was banged up at the start after playing for France in EuroBasket and Towns missed 51 games with a calf injury, leading to a disjointed season. The Wolves finished 42-40, won their second game of the Play-In Tournament and then were beaten 4-1 by Denver in the first round of the playoffs.

“A lot of people judged it a failure,” Gobert said. “Last year, I didn’t think it was a failure. I think it was just part of the process. And I think it was a year of a lot of learning, whether it’s for myself, for my teammates, for everyone, this organization, and we wouldn’t be having the year that we’re having now without last year.”

They also wouldn’t be having this season — the second-best record in franchise history and the first time they have had home-court advantage in the playoffs since 2004 — without Gobert. Finch and assistant Kevin Hanson have helped him with his handle and put him in more dribble-handoff sets. He has been dominant on the defensive end once again and is spreading his wings carefully on offense.

“There’s a difference between being the reason you win and being the reason you don’t lose,” Finch said. “And Rudy is the reason we don’t lose. He doesn’t let us lose these games.”

In the 2021-22 season, Gobert only had 26 and-1 opportunities, a startlingly low number for a player who spends so much time slamming into bodies at the rim. He wasn’t strong enough with the ball in his hands, too often turning it over or not able to finish through the contact.

In 2022-23, that number jumped to 46 chances. He had 44 this season.

In 2020-21, 67.5 percent of his field goals were assisted, the vast majority of them being lob or drop passes for dunks. Gobert and Pereira worked to make Gobert more reliable with the ball in his hands, and it culminated this season with him scoring a higher percentage of his buckets unassisted (52.2) compared to those coming off of an assist (47.8).

Part of the reason for that is Gobert plays with fewer natural lob passers in Minnesota than he did in Utah, but it also is indicative of a growing comfort of creating offense with a dribble or two that was previously unseen in his game.

Over the past two seasons, Gobert has 42 buckets off of two dribbles. That is up 68 percent from the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons combined. He also is passing better out of the post and off of defensive rebounds to trigger transition opportunities.

None of these numbers or highlights are going to have Gobert mistaken for Hakeem Olajuwon. He will still drop a pass, air-ball a free throw or look awkward on a post move on occasion. But the Timberwolves do not need him to be graceful like David Robinson or as versatile as Anthony Davis. They need him to be a reliable option when the Suns’ switching defense ends up with a much smaller player on him in the paint.

On post touches in the middle of the paint, which happens often against switches, Gobert scored 1.34 points per possession, one of the most efficient options in the Minnesota offense this season.

“When he gets those deep seals, he’s kept it strong and simple,” said Hanson, who works with the Wolves big men. “That’s been the main thing.”

His hands aren’t perfect. But teammates have learned from Mike Conley, Kyle Anderson and Towns about how Gobert likes to receive a pass, and that is paying dividends.

“Everything with Rudy is about finding him on time, on target, with the right speed of the ball,” Hanson said.

He also is starting to venture just a little bit farther away from the rim on some shots. That means he is having to get used to the idea of missing a shot now and then. Gobert has led the league in field-goal percentage three times, including a 71 percent clip in 2021-22. He is down to 66.1 percent this season, but that is still second in the NBA.

“That’s been the hardest for me,” Gobert said. “Just being OK with missing, being OK with making mistakes, freeing my mind, doing the things that I work on, but being able to get out of this kind of shell that I was being put in.”

There can be no shell in the playoffs. The Suns can spread out the Timberwolves and have not looked the least bit bothered by Minnesota’s superior size. If the regular-season games are any indication, the Suns will load up on Edwards and dare the rest of the Wolves to beat them.

Gobert has to be ready.

“They’re going to try to do anything they can to disrupt our team and, I believe, ultimately that is going to put me in different situations, but no situation that I’ve never seen before,” Gobert said. “Obviously in the playoffs, it’s a little more fun because the stakes are always a little higher.”

They are especially high for Gobert. He has yet to make a conference final in his previous 10 seasons. He is 31 and desperately wants a championship.

It is not all on Gobert’s shoulders. Edwards and Towns were All-Stars this season. Jaden McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker give him more perimeter defensive help than he’s ever had. He has the faith of his teammates and coaches, and the West is as wide open as it has been in years. This is the moment he and Pereira have spent the last four years building toward.

“For a lot of time in my career, I could have been fine,” Gobert said on his skill set. “I still could make a lot of money and still be a really good player. But I feel like I always had more in me than just that. And I think Nandes’ work is helping me unlock my ultimate potential.”

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photo courtesy of Fernando Pereira)