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The (Big) Man Skilled in All Ways of Contending

What makes Grizzlies center Marc Gasol so good? And what makes him so overlooked?

They are standing in the tunnel at FedExForum, Marc and Pau Gasol, smiling and nodding and whispering in their native Catalan. Twenty feet away, Mike D’Antoni addresses the beat writers assigned to L.A.’s traveling disaster show, deflecting questions about players-only meetings and friction between Kobe and Dwight. Twenty feet in the other direction, fans crowd the railing and peer into the arena’s underbelly, ready to be left hanging when they reach toward players for high fives.

Marc holds a basketball. Pau leans against the doorway. And here, on a Wednesday afternoon in Memphis, is where the narratives and meta-narratives that surround the Gasol brothers all collide. Already in uniform, Marc looks ready to play. Still in street clothes and shower sandals, Pau looks ready to sit. They are two Barcelonans in their adopted West Tennessee home, in a city that embraced and then rejected and finally grew indifferent toward Pau, in the only city that seems to fully appreciate Marc. The younger brother’s career is ascendant, while the older brother is either horribly misused or in the early stages of decline.

But for once, here, the main character is not Pau, the older and more accomplished brother. Instead, it’s Marc, the most overlooked center in the NBA. He’s the one who has emerged as an elite interior defender and a uniquely skilled post passer, as perhaps the most well-rounded big man in the league. When the brothers were traded for each other in 2008, Memphis reacted with some combination of horror and boredom. And even today, Marc attracts few All-Star votes and little jersey sales revenue; but if you ask scouts about him, you’ll have a tough time getting them to shut up.

It’s tough to say why Marc fails to attract the renown given to players of similar quality. Maybe it’s because he plays for the league’s most balanced contender, in one of the NBA’s newest and smallest markets. One theory: Fans remember Marc as Pau’s chubby little brother, and even as he has matured, public perceptions have stayed the same. Another: Marc doesn’t get enough credit because his excellence is difficult to quantify. It’s evident within the context of his team but impossible to isolate and highlight.

After a few minutes, the brothers part ways — first with a fist-bump, then with a handshake and hug. Pau heads to the reporters, to begin another round of Lakers he-said, he-said. Marc heads back to the court, back to the subdued but appreciative crowd, back to his daily life of overlooked excellence.

Back in January, Grantland’s Zach Lowe published a column naming the winners of his “not quite midseason awards.” After calling Marc Gasol the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year, Lowe wrote, “I’m not sure there’s a larger gap between the level of nationwide fan appreciation for a player and the level of appreciation from coaches/scouts/league executives for that player than the gap for Gasol. People inside the league adore this guy.”

I went to Memphis to understand why that gap exists. First observation: However much NBA fans across the United States and around the world underrate Gasol, he gets plenty of love in Memphis. The city adores him. They love that he is skilled, just like Pau, but also thicker and often angrier, with tougher defense and a fuller beard. They love that he excels with or without the ball, that he can help the Grizzlies win whether he scores two points or 20. “This city embraces anybody who just does their job,” says teammate Zach Randolph, “so Marc fits right in.” He is, after all, one of theirs. Though a native of Barcelona, Gasol graduated high school in Memphis. And so the city loves that Pau’s brother is now the closest thing the Grizzlies have to a homegrown star.

But elsewhere, the picture is different. If you log on to the NBA’s online store, you can buy a Zach Randolph or Mike Conley jersey, but not one of Gasol’s. Hell, you can even get a Grizzlies jersey for Rudy Gay, and he’s been on the Raptors for two weeks. When fans voted for the All-Star starters, Marc got fewer than half the votes Pau received, and he finished with about the same number of votes as Shane Battier and almost 90,000 fewer than Omer Asik. (Yes, Asik’s a great defender and rebounder, and many of his 240,467 votes likely came from China’s legions of power-voting Rockets fans, but still. Omer Asik.)

Of course, nobody hates Gasol.1 In fact, most casual fans find his game mildly pleasant — the basketball equivalent of a partly sunny day. But when you start asking NBA insiders about him, you’ll hear nothing mild in their praise. “I absolutely love his game,” an Eastern Conference scout said when I mentioned Gasol. “Love it.” A couple nights later, I asked a scout from the West. “No question,” he said. “He’s my favorite center in the league.”

In fact, the only thing people can’t agree on is which aspect of Gasol’s game they like most. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins points to his awareness of spacing on both sides of the floor. The scout from the Western Conference talks about his ability to guard one-on-one, while the one from the East raves about his eagerness to forget about his one-on-one matchup and offer weakside help. Mike Conley likes Gasol most when he has the ball in the high post, but a Western Conference executive prefers him down on the block.

The common theme, however, is Gasol’s ability to position himself within the flow of the game, expending his energy on the most efficient on-court activities. If he has a mismatch, he’ll look to score. The second a team starts to double him, he’ll find the right pass. On defense it’s the same — Gasol focuses on bodying his man when his man is a threat, and then sliding over to help when he’s not.

These seem like simple things, but they’re as much instinctive as they are learned, and they require versatility that few players, especially big men, possess. “What he does,” says the executive, “coaches try to teach it, but they can’t.”

Gasol has a difficult time explaining how much of his ability is innate and how much of it has been learned. As a young player, he was equal parts prodigy and late-bloomer, someone whose physical strengths and weaknesses seemed to cancel each other out. “I could always shoot and pass,” he says, describing his play in Barcelona’s elite youth program. “And obviously I was taller than everybody else my age. But other than that, I couldn’t match up. Everyone else was so much stronger than me and so much faster than me. I guess I had to find ways to make up for that, so I had to see the court better than everyone; I had to sneak around to get open.” As a result, he concentrated on strengthening the abilities he already had. Instead of improving on his weaknesses, he taught himself to compensate for abilities he lacked.

Gasol is explaining all of this at a coffee shop in downtown Memphis, a couple blocks away from a Penny Hardaway–owned barbershop and 10 blocks away from FedExForum. He’s wearing a Back to the Future T-shirt and a leather bomber jacket, less Spanish sophisticate than flyover-state hipster. The mustachioed barista smiles but says nothing — Gasol’s a regular — while another customer texts his friend to come see the 7-footer in the flesh.

Gasol continues. He began playing when he was 6 years old, and as an adolescent he joined FC Barcelona’s youth club. By then, Pau had already emerged as an NBA prospect and one of the best young players in Spain. When Pau was drafted in 2001, his parents — a doctor and a hospital administrator — decided to join him in Memphis. With Pau now earning almost $3 million in salary, the Gasols moved to an affluent suburb and enrolled Marc at Lausanne Collegiate, one of the most expensive private schools in Tennessee.

Marc arrived chubby — “A lot of baby fat,” his high school coach Jason Peters says — and almost immediately, he got chubbier. “McDonald’s drive-through,” Gasol says, smiling and shaking his head. “It was pretty bad.” And while Pau tested himself against the NBA’s best and proved that he belonged, Marc played against some of the smallest high schools in Tennessee.

“I think you could say I took a step back in my development,” Gasol says of his move from Barcelona to Tennessee. “In Barcelona, I was with the best players in the country, so some of them were close to my size. Here, I was taller than everyone, so I could score whenever I wanted. The competition wasn’t the same. I wasn’t practicing as much; I was gaining weight.”

Even though his size allowed him to dominate inside against U.S. high school competition, Gasol liked to float out to the perimeter, where he could better see the floor to pass. Today, when you mention Gasol to someone from the league, it’s usually his passing ability that they’ll mention first. “A lot of bigs can score,” says Hollins. “A lot of bigs can rebound. And right now, we have a lot of bigs who can shoot from the midrange or from outside. But to have a big who can facilitate, who can move the ball — that’s unique.” Among centers, Gasol ranks second behind Joakim Noah in assists, but that tells only part of the story.

His assist numbers are deflated, quite simply, because the Grizzlies can’t shoot. Memphis ranks 22nd in the NBA in field goal percentage, and when the defense commits to Gasol and he passes out of the post, his teammates shoot only 39.4 percent, according to Synergy Sports. Among players with at least 50 similar possessions, only LeBron James and DeMarcus Cousins are less fortunate. But, says the Western Conference scout: “It’s not just about him getting the assist. He’s getting the hockey assist. Or beyond that, he’s making the pass that gets the defense out of position, so guys can start swinging it around until someone’s wide open. You can initiate your offensive flow with him.”

Back at Lausanne, Gasol played on the same team as Jerry West’s son, Jonnie. One afternoon, the elder West addressed the team. “The most beautiful play in basketball,” West said, “is the pass.”

“After he said that,” Gasol remembers, “I started thinking about it. You really watch basketball and study basketball, the more you realize, the pass really is beautiful. I’m not just talking about the pass where you look away or anything. Just the right pass at the right time to get somebody open is just beautiful. There is nothing better than that. It’s contagious — it makes everybody happy. When people know that you’re going to give them the ball where they want it, then they’re going to try to do the same thing for you. And then, they’re going to play hard defensively. So just by doing that one small thing, you give your team a better chance to win in all these different ways.”

With two skilled big men in the starting lineup, the Grizzlies run much of their offense through the high post. “When Marc gets the ball there,” says Conley, “it opens up so many options. He can go anywhere with it. He can swing it to a shooter in the far corner, or he can hit a cutter for a layup, or he can give it to Zach in a good place down low.”

Gasol’s favorite place to get the ball, however, is in a face-up position on the left block. “From there, I can do whatever I want,” he says. “I can distribute, I can play one-on-one. I can shoot. I can drive either direction, or I can go into the lane for my hook.” Nearly a quarter of Gasol’s plays come from that spot, and he scores more efficiently there than most any high-usage post player in the league, including Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, and Dwight Howard.2

Gasol is also a master of the pick-and-roll, where he ranks seventh in the league in scoring efficiency among players with at least 100 possessions. On the pick-and-pop, he’s even better. Among players with at least 50 of those, Gasol’s 1.09 points per play ranks fourth behind Ryan Anderson, Chris Kaman, and Charlie Villanueva.

That offensive skill set has always come easily to Gasol, aided by his dexterity and vision, honed over hours of practice as an adolescent in Barcelona. By themselves, those skills could have made Gasol a solid player in Europe or perhaps a fringe contributor in the NBA. But to become one of the best centers in the world, that wouldn’t be enough.

Take a moment to look at Gasol’s Scout.com recruiting profile. Two stars, ranked 115th among power forwards (110 spots behind Kris Humphries, and 114 spots behind Ndudi Ebi); 6-foot-10, with interest, but no offer, from Memphis.

At the time, a few high-profile programs wanted Gasol to walk on. “They knew with his financial situation, because of Pau, he could do it,” says Peters. It made sense. Gasol had the size, the skill, and the genes to be great. He lacked only the body. Still weak, still overweight (about 330 pounds), and still three inches shy of his eventual height, Gasol looked nothing like an NBA prospect. But even though he couldn’t get a big-time scholarship offer, Gasol could return to play in Spain. Despite its status as the top club in Europe at the time, Barcelona thought enough of Gasol’s skill set and pedigree to offer a contract. “That was one of the easiest decisions I ever made,” he says.

So instead of riding the bench in the Big Ten or ACC, he rode the bench in Spain’s ACB league. “He was a throwaway player,” says Eduardo Schell, the editor of NBA.es, the league’s Spanish website. “There’s no other way to say it. He was the last guy on the bench — just a really low-quality player.” In three years with the club, Gasol never averaged more than 17 minutes a game. “When you’re a kid there, you grow up dreaming of playing for Barcelona,” Gasol says. “You see yourself playing in big games, in the big Palau. You never imagine yourself being there but just sitting on the bench.”

In the summer of 2006, Pau, Jose Calderon, and Rudy Fernandez prepared to lead a Spanish national team that ranked among the favorites for the world championships in Japan. Just before the tournament began, Fran Vazquez, a 6-foot-10 Spaniard who’d been chosen 11th overall in the previous year’s NBA draft, injured his back. Gasol was named as his replacement. “Everybody said, ‘They’re just calling him in to make Pau happy,’” says Schell. “But the thinking was, he’s young, he’s not going to put up a fight if he doesn’t play. Everybody knew him and liked him as a person. He would be a good 12th man.”

When he showed up for the first day of practice, coach Pepu Hernandez told him that if he wanted to play, he had to lose weight. Gasol obliged. And so began Gasol’s physical transformation. (Today, he eats fruit at the beginning of most meals, which makes him fill up more quickly. “Even now, if I’m not careful, it can get really ugly really fast,” he says.) More injuries left Spain weak in the post, and Gasol contributed solid minutes off the bench. Teammates took to calling him tanketa, Spanish for tank. (This was preferable to his high school nickname, “The big burrito.”)

Spain advanced to the gold-medal game against Greece (which had beaten the U.S. in the semifinals, the only time a Mike Krzyzewski–coached team has lost in international competition). With Pau sidelined by a foot injury, Marc played 17 minutes and grabbed seven rebounds as Spain won gold.

“Emotionally, that was huge for me,” Gasol says. “I saw the path. I saw what I could do against the best players in the world.” With his Barcelona contract expiring, Gasol considered joining a club in Spain’s second division. But after his solid play in the world championships, he received an offer from a club in Girona, about an hour north of his home. “He was improving in Barcelona, but no one could see it,” says a Western Conference executive with experience scouting the Spanish league. “There’s a culture in place there. You defer to your elders. If you’re young, you’re not going to get to play.” Once in Girona, Gasol played. And once he played, he thrived.

During Gasol’s first year with the new club he turned 22, the upper limit for entering the NBA draft as an international player. He submitted his name but refused to work out for teams. “I didn’t care about the draft,” he says. “I didn’t want to do the workouts — they put you in two-on-two full-court drills with guards. That’s not going to help me. I thought if someone wants to see who I am and how I play, they have to come here. That’s not being cocky. You just have to see me in five-on-five, in a real game, to understand.”

When draft night arrived, Gasol watched from Ibiza with his girlfriend, his brother, and Juan Carlos Navarro, who played for the Grizzlies in 2007-08. He looked on as big men such as Tiago Splitter, Kyrylo Fesenko, and Stanko Barac were drafted out of European leagues. “Some of these guys I didn’t know, or I knew I was better than them,” he says. “That’s when I started to get competitive, when I realized maybe I did care where I was drafted.” Finally, the Lakers selected Gasol with the 48th pick. Soon he got a call from L.A. general manager Mitch Kupchak inviting him to training camp. “I’m already a professional over here,” Gasol told Kupchak. “I’m not going to go over there just to try out for you guys.”

Kupchak understood. Gasol stayed put, unsure if or when he would move to the NBA. “It would be really cool,” he told his father, “if I could play for Memphis.” But Gasol realized the realities of that wish. “It wouldn’t make sense for them to want me. It would only make sense if they got rid of Pau.”

They are standing in the tunnel at FedExForum, Chris Wallace and John Hollinger, huddled over a stat sheet as fans rush by. It’s halftime of a late-January game against the Nets, and Memphis already leads 67-44. “Can you believe how well we’re playing!” says Hollinger, a former ESPN statistical analyst who was recently hired as the Grizzlies’ VP of basketball operations, to Wallace, the general manager. Both shake their heads.

The two pore over the numbers and grin, and soon a fan in a Zach Randolph jersey stops to point. “This right here,” he says, gesturing at the pair. “This is the dream team.”

That depends on who you ask. A few days after this game, the Grizzlies would trade leading scorer Rudy Gay, only a week after they traded rotation players Wayne Ellington and Marreese Speights. The media narrative surrounding the Grizzlies has changed thanks to the deal. Before, they were considered a fringe title contender, but now many, including Coach Hollins, have questioned the wisdom of the trades. And then, of course, there’s the question of who made the deals. Some reports have said that Wallace is something of a lame-duck GM, while Hollinger is command. Either way, it seems likely that the trades will make Gasol more important, as Memphis looks to initiate offense through the post duo, where the team once initiated much of it through Gay.

Even if Wallace’s role in Memphis may seem unstable now, no one questioned who was in charge in the winter of 2008, when the Grizzlies traded Pau to the Lakers for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, a couple draft picks, and Marc. The reaction was immediate and unanimous: Memphis had been robbed, and Wallace was to blame. By then, the elder Gasol had become a scapegoat for the franchise’s woes, viewed by fans as all polish and no toughness, incapable of connecting with the city or leading the team. “Nobody cared that they had traded Pau,” says Geoff Calkins, a columnist for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “People were just mad that when they gave him up, all they got back was his chubby little brother.”

During his time with the Grizzlies, Pau continually pressed the front office to scout Marc. In his second season with Girona, Marc had emerged as an MVP candidate in the Spanish league. Though still bulky, his body had been trimmed. Not only could he shoot and pass — now, he could rebound and defend. “We weren’t talking about a second-round pick anymore,” says Wallace. “He looked like a lottery pick.” And Memphis paid him like one, signing Gasol to a three-year, $10 million deal.

He arrived back stateside, slimmer, stronger, and taller than he’d been five years earlier, when he graduated from high school. Still, says former Grizzlies trainer Jason Biles, “Physically, he had a good ways to go.” Gasol started 75 games his rookie year but had to keep his minutes in check, still acclimating to the NBA’s demanding schedule. At the beginning of the offseason, Gasol gave Biles his credit card. “Whatever you think I need,” he said, “buy it.”

Biles stocked up on weighted vests, medicine balls, foam rollers, and bands, and then he sent them all to Spain, along with a detailed training plan. Marc got to work on his own, and later that summer, Biles flew to Barcelona to train him one-on-one. When Marc picked him up from the airport, Biles says, “I looked at him, and I thought he was Pau. He was just a completely different person.”

Today, the added strength and subtracted weight have helped Gasol become one of the best defenders in the league. He ranks 13th in blocks with 1.7 per game, and among centers, he’s fifth in steals, averaging 1.0. “He’s just a smart and opportunistic defender,” says Wallace. “He can block shots, but more than that, he can keep plays alive, and he can force bad decisions.” When Gasol is on the court, the Grizzlies allow 2.5 fewer points per 100 possessions.

For Gasol, defense starts with your one-on-one matchup. The night before we met, he’d held Dwight Howard to two points on 0-for-4 shooting. (To be fair, Howard played only 14 minutes before aggravating the torn labrum in his shoulder and leaving the game.) Gasol had come equipped with a defensive plan tailored for Howard, which he’d executed to perfection. Sitting in the coffee shop, he explained. “When Dwight sets a screen, he rolls immediately to the basket. So you can’t show out on him. The second you do, you’ve lost him. If the guard comes in from the wing to help, then Steve [Nash] is going to hit the open man for a 3. If the guard doesn’t come in, then it’s a lob, and no matter where he throws it, Dwight’s going to go get it.” Conley fights through screens to stick with Nash. “So if I don’t have to show, then I can bump Dwight off course early and keep him from getting the path he wants to the basket.”

Gasol has become a master of the pick-and-roll hip check. “That’s not only about not letting him get the ball for an easy shot,” says Gasol. “That’s also about the rebound. You have to already be working on that, before you even know if the shot is going up.”

Says the Western Conference scout: “A lot of big guys — most of them, really — can’t guard their man one-on-one. They have to get help, and obviously that changes everything defensively. He’s someone who you know, every night, he doesn’t need help.” On the other hand, the Eastern Conference scout points to Gasol’s willingness to work outside of his individual matchup. “So many players don’t want to help, because they’re scared to leave their man,” he says. “If they leave their man, they’ll get scored on, and that looks bad on them. He doesn’t care about that at all. He’ll switch at any point.”

Here’s how Gasol sees it: “The whole thing is like a dance. I don’t know if that’s weird to say, but you can dance with the ball. You’re following the ball and making small adjustments, one or two steps, and just by doing that you can take away so many things. If you get to where the ball is going early, then you’re controlling what happens. You’re forcing him to go where he doesn’t want to go. Then eventually 24 seconds are almost gone, and in those last few seconds, then it just comes down to your one-on-one matchup.”

That night in January, when Gasol wasn’t matched up with Dwight, he was going head-to-head with Pau. After their pregame conversation, the two barely acknowledged each other’s existence during the game. “The first couple of times we played, I got butterflies,” Gasol says. “It was like a dream.”

In the summers in Barcelona, every workout would end the same way: They play, they fight, and then they leave the gym angry, riding home in silence. After an hour or so, dinner is served, wine is poured, and the tension subsides. The next day, they do it again.

Now, Marc tries to view Pau as any other opponent. Still, he says, “You feel proud. You’re playing your brother, and he’s one of the best players in his spot. You’re one of the best players in your spot. You’re going at each other for the same goal. There’s nothing a younger brother wants more than getting the best of his older brother on the biggest stage.”

All their lives, Pau has been the precocious one, the one whose talent was never in dispute, whose body never faltered or softened. But on this night they stood on the court as equals — Marc no longer the chubby little brother or the stiff at the end of the Barcelona bench, no longer the throwaway inclusion in the blockbuster trade.

In the second half, Marc caught the ball on the left side of the floor, just a few feet away from his spot. Pau crouched in his defensive stance, as Marc held the ball high, sizing up his brother.

Marc rose, fired, and as the ball dropped through the net, he jogged downcourt, shaking his head with some combination of defiance and self-satisfaction.

“Ah, man,” Marc would say the next afternoon, giggling in the coffee shop. “A moment like that, what are you gonna do?”

Filed Under: Lies, Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies, NBA, People, Series, Sports, Teams

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Jordan Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

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