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NBA Sunday: The Ascension of Marc Gasol

No longer ‘Pau’s little brother,’ it’s time to call Marc Gasol something else: the best center in the NBA.

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Way back in 2001—before his move to Germantown, Tennessee and long before his older brother became an NBA Champion—Marc Gasol was merely a figment of his own imagination.

Long before he became the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and long before he became renowned as one of the top centers in the NBA, he was simply known as “Pau’s little brother,” before being affectionately referred to as “The Big Burrito.”

But today, you call him something else—the best center in the NBA.

It has been a long 13 years.

In 2001, as Marc heard his older brother’s name called during the NBA Draft and saw him immediately traded by the Atlanta Hawks to the Vancouver Grizzlies for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, it was only in Marc’s wildest dreams that he could imagine himself one day playing a primary role in his older brother being traded for a second time in his career, but on February 1, 2008, that’s exactly what happened.

But even before then—before his professional career began with FC Barcelona—Marc was quietly persevering in a new country, new environment and, frankly, a new world.

Back in 2001, after relocating from Barcelona to Tennessee with his parents, Marc enrolled at Lausanne Collegiate High School in Memphis and immediately earned the reputation for being a reserved, lucid student of the game. Sporadically working out with his older brother, Marc enjoyed standout years in high school before beginning stints with the Spanish National Basketball team and in Spain’s Liga ACB.

He refined his game, entwining the skill set required of an American big man with those necessary of a go-to pivot-man in a more Eurocentric playing style. The duality of his playing experiences, both in the United States and in international play for Spain, paid major dividends.

Before long, Marc found himself on the radar of a few international scouts in the NBA before the Los Angeles Lakers selected him with the 48th pick of 2007 NBA Draft.

Seven years later, no longer is Mark referred to merely as “Pau’s little brother.”

He slowly began to outgrow that shadow. Today, he towers above it.

——

On the continuum from glossy-eyed neophyte to perennial All-Star, the 29-year-old has both paid his due and put in the work. And as his Memphis Grizzlies close out the first 12 games of the NBA season with the Western Conference’s best record, it is Gasol who has emerged as the primary catalyst for his team’s success.

With amazing stature, the younger Gasol is the little brother only by virtue of his birthright, not his size. Standing at 7’1 and weighing in at 265 pounds, Marc is the antithesis of today’s svelte NBA center, but he is light on his feet, nimble and has amazing footwork for a man of his size.

His international experience is evidenced in his game. He possesses the underrated and under-discussed skill of being able to effectively read pick-and-roll coverages and simultaneously possesses the ability to both roll to the basket and catch and finish with either hand as well as step out and comfortably hit a jumper as far as 18 feet away.

His growing up observing the American style of play that was mostly seen around the league in the early 2000s is apparent, as Gasol has footwork and a back-to-the-basket game that is reminiscent of some of his predecessors that served as their team’s primary playmakers from the pivot.

In flashes, you can see remnants of Rik Smits, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and even Shaquille O’Neal.

Today, as the NBA relishes in the “Golden Age of the Point Guard,” the traditional big man has become an endangered species.

That makes Gasol all the more valuable, particularly when he is set to become a free agent in July 2015.

This season, as he plays out the final year of the four-year, $57 million extension he signed to remain with the Grizzlies in December 2011, he has emerged as not only the top center prospect of the free agent class of 2015, but arguably the top free agent overall.

By virtue of his $15.8 million salary this season, Gasol will be eligible for a maximum salary of $16.6 million in the first year of his next contract. A maximum offer from the Grizzlies would be somewhere in the neighborhood of five years and $95 million.

Before the beginning of the 2014-15 season, whether or not Gasol would be worth that type of investment could have led to a very reasonable debate, especially as the center inches toward his 30th birthday in January. However, a confluence of events—the NBA’s new television deal, the Grizzlies thriving as the West’s top team and Gasol’s increased productivity—almost make the debate a futile one.

In short, any NBA team that is truly serious about competing for an NBA Championship could not and should not allow a talent like Gasol to end up elsewhere if it can at all be avoided. That is especially true considering the financial flexibility the Grizzlies have maintained by strategically inking Zach Randolph to a cap-friendly, two-year, $20 million extension that is set to kick in next season.

With just $41 million in guaranteed salaries on their books next season, the Grizzlies have the funds available to re-sign Gasol without necessarily hitting the luxury tax. With his improved productivity this season and their entering play after four weeks of regular season action as the top team out in the Western Conference, the reasoning for re-signing him should be readily apparent, as well.

And that comes much to the chagrin of Phil Jackson and his New York Knicks.

——

After being named the President of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks back in March 2014, Jackson immediately let it be known that he was a proponent of “system basketball” and that he would do his best to implement the triangle offense in New York City. That offense, obviously, helped him win 11 NBA Championships as a head coach in Chicago and Los Angeles.

One thing Jackson knows better than anyone else, though, is that a successful triangle requires at least two dynamic sides. After re-signing Carmelo Anthony this past summer to a five-year contract worth about $124 million, Jackson has one.

Now, phase two of Jackson’s grandiose plan will continue in July 2015. Armed with cap space, it is a poorly kept secret that Marc Gasol is Jackson’s Plan A.

The subject was discussed when Pau and his Chicago Bulls visited New York City to do battle with the Knicks during the first week of the 2014-15 season, with Pau agreeing that it was “possible” that his younger brother could end up as a member of the Knicks. Pau also divulged that the two have spoken about Jackson in the past.

As the NBA’s Lord of the Rings, Jackson knows a thing or two about what it takes to win at the highest level in the league and as the master of the triangle offense, he knows that running it at a championship level requires a pivot-man with special virtues.

Jackson requires another front court player than can effectively play with his back to the basket, keep opposing defenses honest and pass from the post and make plays for his teammates.

In a word, that player is Gasol, so it doesn’t necessarily take a rocket scientist to figure out that Jackson and his front office will be among the first teams on Marc’s doorstep come July 1. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they will offer Gasol a maximum-allowable four-year, $71 million non-Bird contract.

Across the league, there will be scores of other teams lining up to throw offers and scenarios at Pau’s younger brother. As arguably the most skilled big man in the NBA today, he has emerged as the apple of many front office’s eyes, particularly in a world where most NBA teams employ one-dimensional starting centers who lack “traditional” big man skills.

Still, the summer is quite a ways off. For Gasol and his Grizzlies, the focus remains on the present.

——

One thing that has proven to be true, quite consistently for that matter, is that tomorrow is promised to no one.

Back in the 2009 NBA Playoffs, when Derrick Rose gave the Boston Celtics all they could handle in a seven-game first round playoff series, we all imagined how bright the future would be for the Rose-led Chicago Bulls.

Five years and a myriad of injuries later, we continue to qualify the designations of the Bulls being the team to beat with “if they are healthy.”

Back in 2012, when LeBron James ascended to the throne of the NBA, James Harden’s miserable performance in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s five-game NBA Finals defeat was shrugged off by many as growing pains. We were certain that the Thunder would be a fixture in the NBA Finals.

Four months later, with Harden dealt to the Rockets, everything changed.

And now, as Thanksgiving nears and the 2014-15 season is well underway, it is at this point that we can begin to surmise the true identity of some of the NBA’s tougher teams. It is at this point that we can begin to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

As we peruse the landscape, we see that the Eastern Conference is being led by the Toronto Raptors. The Bulls are still in search of the health necessary of a champion and the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers are experiencing some appreciable growing pains. Out West, we know that the Thunder face a very real challenge in recovering from the injuries to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and that the recently revealed knee ailment that is plaguing Dwight Howard could open things up to a batch of contenders not previously thought to have the talent necessary to contend for the NBA Championship.

The Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and even Dallas Mavericks certainly expect to have a puncher’s chance at competing for the Western Conference’s crown.

Meanwhile, lurking in the shadows no more, with a bruising front line, pesky perimeter defense and an improved bench platoon being led by a few veterans, the Grizzlies have completed the first lap of the NBA season with a firm grasp on the attention of the entire league.

And it is behind Marc Gasol, no longer known as “Pau’s little brother,” that the dream of the Grizzlies playing into June and triumphantly emerging as NBA Champions is legitimate.

Indeed, way back in 2001, with his older brother serving as a shining example, his international experience and dedicated work ethic has helped Marc Gasol become more than he himself probably imagined.

With his Memphis Grizzlies and their improbable rise among the West’s giants, he is something new all together.

Today, lurking in the shadows no more, he is his own man. Truthfully, he is now the superior Gasol.

Today, finally, we can safely say that he has fulfilled his promise.

Today, finally, we can say that he has emerged as the best center in the game.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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