TORONTO — “I’m team-first,” Marc Gasol said as the 11-year veteran centre towered over reporters following his first morning shootaround at Scotiabank Arena, just four days after the Toronto Raptors acquired the former Defensive Player of the Year and three-time all-star just an hour or so before the NBA’s trade deadline passed on Thursday afternoon.
“It’s been a little hectic,” Gasol said of his first 72 hours as a Raptor, which included his debut Saturday night in New York versus the Knicks. “A lot of learning — learning plays, schemes, tendencies. But it’s been a lot of fun and exciting. I can’t complain at all. I’m approaching it with a lot of confidence and energy.”
The Raptors’ seven-foot-one newcomer was all smiles ahead of his home debut Monday night against the Brooklyn Nets — and why not? Despite an impressive career in Memphis with the Grizzlies, the writing had been on the wall that Gasol’s days were numbered there, his former team looking to kick-start a rebuild and the 34 year-old centre looking for a chance to win.
He’s made a good impression so far — an affable guy who seems relieved to be in a position to be playing for something meaningful at this stage of his career.
As far as new destinations are concerned, Gasol certainly landed in a familiar one. The connections between him and other Spanish NBAers who plied their trade in Toronto are strong, including friends and former national team teammates like beloved Raptors Jose Calderon and Jorge Garbajosa, currently head of the Spanish Basketball Federation. First-year Raps assistant Sergio Scariolo is also extremely familiar with his game and coached him at the national level, where big man Serge Ibaka was an Olympic teammate at the London Games in 2012.
All the signs are there that Gasol should be able to get up to speed with his new club, but with the post-season just 25 games away, the clock is ticking. He’ll be aided a bit by the upcoming all-star break, which Gasol says he’ll spend back home in Memphis, “packing and working out.”
With his busy first few days behind him, now the focus shifts to basketball and winning, something the Raptors are hoping Gasol can contribute to greatly. The early returns, limited as they may be, have been promising.
“He looked like he fit right in,” Nurse said of Saturday’s performance, “and our guys looked like they’ve played with him for a long time.” The numbers won’t jump out at you — seven points and six rebounds in 19 minutes — but he flashed his all-around game in the Raptors’ 104-99 win in New York.
Still there are clearly adjustments to be made as Gasol and his teammates learn one another’s skill-sets. For starters, it’ll still take some getting used to playing with a centre with Gasol’s passing skills, a noticeably different look out of the centre position than the team has been used to — he had just one assist on Saturday, but as Nurse pointed out, it seemed like he could have had about six more if his teammates could buy a bucket.
This compilation, via James Herbert, shows just how much Gasol was working to get his teammates involved on Saturday:
Gasol’s passing and defensive abilities alone should help ingratiate him on his new team in no time. After all, he and his fellow Raptors all speak the same language.
“It’s basketball at the end of the day,” says Gasol. “I like to communicate, to share the ball. It’s going to get better with time, I’m going to get more comfortable out there and a better rhythm in my shot and my legs. It’s all positive. [The Raptors’] approach — how they share the ball and how unselfish guys are — helps me get adjusted as well.”
Gasol has been eying this opportunity, and he says the benefit of age and experience not only should help his new team, but made leaving the Grizzlies, the only franchise he’s played for, a little easier. “It’s not as emotional, probably. You’re older and more mature. You put things in perspective,” he says, “and you understand the chance that you have coming from a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in the last year — and more than likely this year as well — you know how much this means. You look at this team and the franchise, and you understand what they’re going for.”
That would be a spot in the NBA Finals and a chance to compete for a title, something Gasol has yet to do despite six trips to the post-season in the past eight years.
But first up is what should be a fun and challenging matchup on Monday against he surging Brooklyn Nets, who have quietly worked their way up the East standings behind a young, infectious team led by first-time all-star D’Angelo Russell.
Gasol was brought in to help reach a lofty goal. After his time on a Memphis team eying a long rebuild before another playoff run, he’s excited to play in front of what should be a wildly supportive hometown crowd for his Toronto debut on Monday — and for something meaningful.
“When we were playing in New York you could already feel that energy,” he said of the vocal Raptors fan contingent at Madison Square Garden. “It felt like there were thousands of them up [in the stands], so imagine having all of them here. It’s exciting,” Gasol said. “And what we’re playing for is really exciting as well.”