Marc Gasol transformed his game to save the Grizzlies' season


There’s no way the Grizzlies should be as competitive as they have been through the first quarter of the NBA season. While they have the talent to compete for a top seed when healthy, injuries have prevented Chandler Parsons and Mike Conley from making their mark thus far. There aren’t many teams that could lose its two highest-paid players for 27 combined games and keep their head above water — let alone be neck-and-neck with the Rockets and Clippers for the third-best record in the Western Conference — but that’s exactly what the Grizzlies have done.

Then again, no other team has Marc Gasol. To get an idea of how important he has been to their early season success, consider this: Memphis is 7.2 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent when Gasol is on the court. Without him? 12.6 points per 100 possessions worse. In fact, their offensive efficiency has been so bad when he’s on the bench that it would rank last in

the NBA by a significant margin.

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The funny thing about Gasol is he’s always been capable of performing at this level. He has never been a volume scorer, but it’s had more to do with his role on the team than his talent. For example, 40.2 percent of his offense came in the post last season, and he ranked in the 66.4 percentile with 0.89 points per possession. He is a knockdown shooter from midrange as well, which has helped him become one of the more efficient pick-and-roll big men in the NBA. As a 7-footer who weighs over 250 pounds, those tools make him a handful for nearly every center in the league to match up against because he can comfortably play inside and out.

Just watch him effortlessly face-up against the much more athletic Karl-Anthony Towns...

... and then bully a strong center in Kyle O’Quinn on the block before unleashing his version of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook to get an idea of his versatility.

The biggest difference this season is the Grizzlies desperately need Gasol to take on a bigger role due to the injuries they have sustained and Zach Randolph not being the dominant scorer he once was. It’s why Gasol’s usage rate (26.6) and field goal attempts (17.0 per 36 minutes) have jumped to career-highs despite being a 31-year-old coming off of foot surgery. He has also boosted his points per game (19.8) and assist percentage (18.9 percent to a guard-like 24.3 percent) to levels we’ve never seen from him before while maintaining the same efficiency.

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It helps that Gasol has embraced his ability to space the floor. Over a quarter of his field goals last season were of the long 2-point variety, according to Basketball Reference, which wasn’t a bad shot for him considering he knocked down 43.5 percent of those looks. A large amount of his shots are still coming 16-feet away from the basket — check out the table below to see where his attempts are located compared to years past — but he’s turned a healthy amount of them into 3-pointers. As crazy as it sounds for someone to go from making 12 3-pointers in their career to 38 in 24 games, Gasol has always had the touch to at least experiment from distance.

 2PT0-3 FT3-10 FT10-16 FT16 <3PT3PTFirst eight seasons98.928.033.420.117.40.01This season77.212.226.918.319.822.8

What is crazy, however, is Gasol has made more 3-pointers than Devin Booker, Andrew Wiggins, LeBron James, Draymond Green and Goran Dragic on the season. He’s even draining 3-pointers in crunch time. Gasol has made six clutch 3-pointers on 15 attempts, and the only other players to hit as many as him are Langston Galloway (6-for-14), Russell Westbrook (6-for-20), Kemba Walker (6-for-19) and Conley (6-for-12).

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Therefore, it’s not just the novelty of Gasol being a center who can step out and take 3-pointers that bends defenses. It’s that he’s gone from being a non-threat from there to being an absolute assassin.

From there, Gasol is doing what he always has by making the extra pass when a passing lane opens up. The Grizzlies are slightly different this season because they’ve caught up with the times by adding versatile bigs such as JaMychal Green and James Ennis III, both of whom can score in the post, knock down the occasional 3-pointer and cut to the basket when defenders think they can leave them in the corner. It means the offense can keep running through Gasol, whether it’s on short rolls…

... out of the post…

... off the dribble…

… or when he’s using his gravity to survey the court from the perimeter.

When you think about it, those factors are what makes the new wave of centers in the NBA so tantalizing. Both Towns and Kristaps Porzingis are incredibly valuable because they can knock down jump shots out to the 3-point line, score with their back to the basket when needed, make plays off the dribble and find the open man. Gasol isn’t anything like them on the surface — both Towns and Porzingis would beat Gasol handedly in a foot race and jumping contest — but their skill sets are familiar in a nutshell.

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What separates them most, though, is Porzingis and Towns are still learning how to put it all together whereas Gasol is a one-time Defensive Player of the Year doing it for a team currently overperforming in his prime. The former sets Towns and Porzingis up to be MVPs in the future, the latter sets Gasol up to be an MVP candidate for as long as he can keep the Grizzlies alive.

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