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Player Preview: Marc Gasol, the veteran connector

Marc Gasol won a title as a glue guy after spending a decade as a star, now the Raptors will need him to ride the line between those two roles. Can he do it?

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Championship Parade Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

No one had a better summer than Marc Gasol. Every Raptor won an NBA championship, but Kyle Lowry needed surgery and Kawhi Leonard suffered through the indignity of a heavily scrutinized free agency. Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell had to shepherd rookies through scrimmages. The end of bench guys struggled to find employment. Danny Green found a new job, but it was on a team with only four NBA caliber players and he spent the rest of the summer lingering in Toronto, presumably regretting his decision. We, the fans, won a championship, and then we had to go back to our jobs, or back to school, or whatever other exhausting mundanity life has thrust on us.

Marc Gasol won, got drunk off his ass, and then just kept on winning. Gasol immediately followed his title win with a truly legendary performance at the Raptors championship parade. This has been documented in detail elsewhere but lets run down the list anyways.

Gasol:

  1. Drank a ludicrous amount of wine.
  2. Turned into a wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man.
  3. Showered crowds in champagne.
  4. Could not stop talking to the Prime Minister about how drunk he was.
  5. Bit Danny Green.
  6. Was kept away from any and all microphones by his teammates.

Then, likely before the hangover had faded, he was called out to represent Spain at the FIBA World Cup. Gasol was the only Raptor who got the opportunity to represent his country at the event, as Lowry was sidelined by the aforementioned surgery. He and the Spaniards won the whole damn thing, with Gasol’s tournament being highlighted by a monstrous 33 point performance to take down the Australians and advance to finals against Argentina.

A combination of his relatively advanced age and his eventful summer has resulted in the Raptors easing Gasol into their training camp and preseason. Gasol missed the Raptors’ first preseason game and came off the bench in their second. There’s been talk of “load managing” Gasol and Lowry, replicating the heavy rest strategy the Raptors used with Kawhi Leonard last year to ensure the veterans stay healthy. Yet, despite the drunken revelry and load management, the big Spaniard will still be asked to play a crucial role for these Raptors. Let’s take a closer look at what that role seems likely to be.

Role on the Team

After years operating as option 1A or 1B in Memphis, Gasol embraced his new role as a connecting piece in the Raptors championship offense. Gasol typically figured as either the 4th or 5th scoring option in the Raptors’ key lineups, and as a scorer the majority of his shots came off of catch-and-shoots, whether he was picking-and-popping, spotting-up, or spacing the floor in transition.

Once the playoffs came around, the post-up game that had been Gasol’s bread-and-butter for over a decade in Memphis was sidelined. He went from averaging 3.5 post-ups per game in the regular season to 1.2 per game in the playoffs. This wasn’t without reason, Gasol’s efficiency in the post has been slipping for years, and he was catastrophically inefficient on the post-up opportunities he was granted in the playoffs, averaging just 0.59 points per possession. Anecdotally, Raptors fans will surely recall his fruitless attempts to back down Tobias Harris in the Raptors’ second round matchup against the Sixers. As a low-post player Gasol is likely done, outside of posting severe mismatches.

Some transactional events that occurred this offseason make the above slightly concerning. Kawhi Leonard departed the Raptors in free agency, as you are likely aware, leaving a usage vacuum that the Raptors will need to fill. Pascal Siakam will make up much of the void. Kyle Lowry will likely be asked to return to his pre-Leonard usage. But logic would dictate that Gasol will be a third option rather than fourth or fifth in most lineups this year, leaving questions as to where exactly those additional shots will come from, as a return to the style he played in Memphis means a return to a post-up game that has largely abandoned him.

Outside of scoring, Gasol’s role is much more clear. He will be the de-facto starter at centre for the Raptors, ceding the role to Serge Ibaka only if his load is being managed. His ability to facilitate will be instrumental to helping Lowry and Siakam grow their roles. Lowry and Siakam combined to shoot an effective field goal percentage of 69 percent (nice) on shot attempts immediately following Gasol passes in the regular season last year. That number is unsustainable, but Gasol’s ability to make deliveries to movement shooters and cutters from the elbows, as well as his ability to find shooters spotting-up while on the short-roll should help Lowry and Siakam immensely. His ability to initiate the offense in this capacity should also take pressure off of secondary ball-handlers like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and incoming rookie Terence Davis in the in-between lineups without Lowry or Siakam.

Defensively, Gasol will presumably remain the brick wall in the post that he was when he stone-walled Nikola Vucevic and Joel Embiid in back-to-back series. While no longer vertically explosive, he can still protect the rim just by being a very large individual who gets straight up and down (he’ll also take the occasional charge). Slow and lumbering though he may be, he shows off his preternatural defensive instincts whenever he steps out on pick-and-rolls. Most bigs in Gasol’s vein are limited to playing drop coverage, but Gasol wracks up deflections and recovers after taking away driving lanes at an uncanny rate for someone with his relative lack of mobility.

Needs Improvement

We already touched on this, but by far the biggest concern for Gasol will be how he goes about re-expanding his usage as a scorer. If post-ups are largely disqualified (and they should be) then Gasol will need to be a much more confident jump-shooter this year than he’s been in the past.

Even in this clip, where Gasol does eventually take and make the shot, he needs a full two seconds before he decides to finally fire away. He’s seemingly waiting desperately for a member of Warriors to run at him so that he can rationalize passing it off or putting the ball on the floor. This kind of deferential-to-the-extreme behaviour needs to go entering this year. With Leonard’s departure the Raptors no longer have an elite late-clock fallback, and, as such, the time wasted by passing up good looks will hurt them all the more.

The good news is that all that needs to happen is a change in mentality, Gasol is already a very solid shooter. He shot an extremely respectable 52 percent effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers last year; a Gasol catch-and-shoot is a well above average halfcourt possession. If he starts taking pick-and-pop jumpers with the confidence that fellow big Serge Ibaka does, then Gasol will be able to take on the additional usage with ease.

Expectation

Gasol will start when he’s healthy and not resting, and he’ll make things easier for everyone around him whenever he’s on the floor. Whether he’s diming up shooters or cutters, or giving the point-of-attack defender and extra second to recover by stepping out on a ball-screen, Gasol will do all the little, selfless things.

The departure of Leonard means, however, that the Raptors will need Gasol to leave some of his selfless tendencies by the wayside. The Raptors will ask Gasol to scale his game back up in a way that accounts for his advanced age and diminishing effectiveness in the post. He (hopefully) won’t be consistently asked to force tough looks, but he has to be confident enough to take the open shots he gets every time.

Gasol doesn’t need to be the star he was for over a decade in Memphis, but he can’t be the deferential glue guy he was for Toronto in last year’s playoffs either.

All stats per stats.NBA.com