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Marc's Masterpiece: Witnessing Gasol's Greatness

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For so long, the potential was there. Fans, writers, and coaches alike all saw it. With a bit more aggression, and a bit more conditioning, Marc Gasol would become a monster. We're here. Welcome to Wendigo's World, where we are all witnesses to his masterpiece.

Marc Gasol's MVP season? Through 17 games, we are all witnesses.
Marc Gasol's MVP season? Through 17 games, we are all witnesses.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There is something to be said for watching something truly great. You know it when you see it; it's like a rising sun on a cloudless morning, impossible to ignore for both its sheer intensity and stunning beauty. That greatness is especially fulfilling when it is a reflection of potential achieved; so often you hear stories of guys who could have made it but didn't, had the talent but never truly lived up to who, or what, they could have been.

For a time, something along those lines could have been said about Marc Gasol.

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The former Defensive Player of the Year has almost always been seen as a key piece of the Grizzlies' present and future. He slid right into an important role upon his arrival in Memphis as a player in 2008, and his minutes per game for his career have never slid below 30. He has played in 453 regular season games over 6 seasons and 17 games this year, in addition to 42 playoff games, starting every single one. Including playoff games, Marc has played in 7 more games as a Memphis Grizzly than arguably the best player in the history of the franchise, his brother Pau Gasol. This statistic speaks to the steadying presence and importance of Marc Gasol to the Grizzlies' organization.

This was further confirmed with the departure of Rudy Gay via trade back in January of 2013; it was now Gasol's image on Season ticket sales booth boards, and it was Marc becoming the focus of the offense, even more so with the promotion of Dave Joerger to Head Coach after the 2012-2013 season ended. His usage rate jumped from 18.8 to 21.2 in 2013-2014, and more sets utilizing Gasol's shooting and passing abilities were dialed up. It was not uncommon to see Gasol with the ball in his hands repeatedly throughout the game, directing not just the defense, but the offense as well. The decision makers in Memphis' front office were ready to make Marc "the man".

There was just one problem, though; Gasol, at times, seemed to be unable to get out of his own way on the path to becoming that man. When Marc was healthy last season, there were still times when he would be so focused on making the "right play" in Coach Joerger's option offense that he would seemingly lose sight of the fact that, at times - in fact, more often than not - he was the best option. Take this set of screen shots for example from an April game against the Lakers.

Gasol Conley LAL 1

Gasol is on the elbow with a lesser player in Robert Sacre playing off of him and the right side of the lane open and ready to be worked with. Mike Conley is about to roll back to Marc, and could run around Marc to create more space. Gasol, however, sees that Mike gets a step on his defender and hands the ball off.

Gasol Conley LAL 2

Gasol sets the pick, allowing space for Conley to get off a jumper that falls. Good play, right?

Yes, but while the battle is won on this individual play, the war eventually is lost for the 2013-2014 season. Gasol rarely took over games, even when his team needed him to the most. Maybe he didn't want to step on the toes of his teammates and good friends Mike Conley and Zach Randolph? Perhaps he still saw the team as Zach's, who was surely a role model to him.  Maybe he wanted to allow Conley his chance to shine, since he has not enjoyed the national attention that Marc has gotten after his Defensive Player of the Year award and 2nd Team All-NBA selection in 2013.

Whatever the reason, the Grizzlies' ability to break through in the extremely deep and difficult Western Conference appeared to be capped. Articles and conversations were had about whether or not this Memphis team could rise to the levels of the elite as constructed, or about whether or not Marc Gasol was indeed a max contract player as he had been up until that point. Marc's talent was never in doubt, but questions arose as to whether or not he could achieve his full potential.

Where there once was doubt, there is now the best kind of satisfaction. Concern has been replaced by cautiously optimistic outlooks on the rise of Marc Gasol to Most Valuable Player levels, with about a fifth of the season in the books. The first game of this season, a 32 point, 9 rebound performance, is a great example.

The most astonishing thing about this transformation is not just the physical one, although it is quite amazing how Gasol has changed his body. The lighter, more agile Gasol has moved more crisply and the footwork, which was always very good, has become just about impeccable in the post. It isn't just the increase in shot attempts (13.9 per game, on pace to lead the Grizzlies for the season for the first time in his career), although those numbers are promising, and show an understanding of a need to be more aggressive. The shots are being taken efficiently as well, as his shot chart shows.

Gasol Shot Chart Dec 1 14

(LA= League Average, DST= Shot Distribution)

It is the appearance of the Gasol so many - the fans, the media, and the organization - believed to exist. This Marc Gasol is the franchise player, the guy who should be on the covers of magazines and the face on season ticket sales booths. He is the guy making the choice to take the shot, not defer to another player. Here are screen shots from earlier this season against the Indiana Pacers that show just that.

Gasol Conley IND 1

Gasol starts at the elbow and drives to the rim. The man guarding Mike Conley steps in to help, leaving Mike open from range. The Marc Gasol from last season likely passes to Conley, potentially the right play in terms of finding the open man, but a longer shot. Not this season:

Gasol Conley IND 2

Gasol executes a fake on the pass, showing the ball and forcing Donald Sloan to retreat back to Conley to create space for himself, then steps into Roy Hibbert and hits his jumping hook shot that, much like his jumper from the free throw area, has looked that much more crisp, that much more confident. Marc Gasol is still making the right play - the difference is in knowing that he is the right play. He has taken on the role of leader, taking this team as far as he goes.

Right now, that place they appear to be going is a good one. As of November 29th, according to Basketball-Reference.com, Marc is on pace to average career highs in points (20.1), usage rate (25.5), and PER (23.4). He is not sacrificing his playmaking for others, though, as he is still averaging 3.5 assists per game, and his defensive rating of 97.8 is on pace with his 2012-2013 Defensive Player of the Year season.

The latest game against the Sacramento Kings is another great example. Even on a night where Marc is struggling with foul trouble and the chaos that is Reggie Evans, he posts a line of 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists, on 55% shooting from the field. Most importantly? He took over when the team needed him most. With the Grizzlies only up 3 with 6:26 left in the 4th quarter, Gasol went on an 8-3 run on his own over a 3 minute span, extending the lead to 8 with 3:31 to go in the game. He attacked, commanded the ball, and lead Memphis away from the ledge of a loss.

Instead of losing aspects of his game for the sake of offense, Gasol is mixing and matching them together alongside an increased leadership role. He is like an artist whose work is on display not in a museum but on NBA hardwood courts every night he suits up as a Memphis Grizzly.

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There are many reasons the Grizzlies are off to this remarkable start. Courtney Lee's red-hot shooting, Memphis' bench rising to the occasion as of late, the steady play of Mike Conley, and the rebounding and presence of Zach Randolph all come to mind. Marc Gasol's impact, however, cannot be overstated or denied, and this one single stat backs that up - since the start of the 2013-2014 regular season, the Memphis Grizzlies are 10-13 without Marc Gasol in the lineup and 55-21 with him. These Grizzlies simply need Marc - max-deal Marc specifically - to achieve their goals.

Which is why the words of Chris Wallace recently on radio shows and podcasts help the Grizzly faithful rest easily at night. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that this version of Gasol has emerged because of the fact that Marc is in a contract year and the time is now to maximize earning potential. Getting married and having a child has more than likely changed Gasol's financial thought processes a bit from "me" to "we", and rightfully so.

Memphis, however, can give Marc the most money and the most years on a contract. He is the catalyst for this team, and his place is in Memphis with his brothers, especially Conley and Randolph, regardless of the cost. The Grizzlies seem prepared to pay the price for the man known as "Big Spain", the monster known as "Wendigo".

And when they do, he will indeed be worth it. Because he has risen to the occasion. Because he has become the superstar the Grizzlies need to break through the NBA's glass ceiling. He is now the key to being able to play meaningful basketball in Memphis in June. Even though it is early in the season, it appears that Marc Gasol's transformation may finally be complete. From a chubby high school student in Memphis, known for being Pau's little brother, to a fit and dominant big, the best and most important player on the best team in the NBA through November.

Marc Gasol's best may be better than his brother's best ever was. Marc has stepped out of Pau's shadow as the leader Pau could never be in Memphis. He is well on his way towards solidifying his own legacy, and there is no better way to do that than in Memphis, leading a parade down Beale Street after winning an NBA championship. At this point of the season, this is no longer a pipe dream. It is a real possibility because of the leader that is Marc Gasol.

He is painting a masterpiece. And we are all witnesses to the greatness that he and his teammates are showcasing. As fall turns to winter in the National Basketball Association, the Grizzlies and their leader will be tested by the NBA's elite. These Grizzlies are battle-tested war horses though, and with Gasol in the lead, they can take on all comers. The time to believe in Marc as the MVP of both the Grizzlies and the NBA is at hand.

And it has been well worth the wait.

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