Big Spain’s Big Year: How Marc Gasol has become the league’s best center

On February 1, 2008, the Memphis Grizzlies traded for Marc Gasol. People were furious.

It’s hard to blame them, actually. The Grizzlies had just traded the best player in their short franchise history, the Spanish finesse big Pau Gasol, to the Los Angeles Lakers, and all they got back was his worse little brother?

The next season, the younger Gasol began his tenure with the Grizzlies. Since then, Gasol has steadily progressed into one of the league’s best players. This season, the Big Spaniard has been playing at an MVP level, and the rest of the NBA is finally taking note of it. But the question remains: How has Marc Gasol been so effective this season?

It all starts on defense. So far this season, the Grizzlies have allowed a defensive efficiency rating of 102.2, good for eleventh place in the NBA. However, for every hundred possessions with Gasol on the floor, the Grizzlies only give up 98.3 points, fourth in the NBA, showing Gasol’s defensive importance for the Grizz.

Critics of Gasol may point out that he only blocks 1.68 shots per game, leaving him at eleventh in the league (Anthony Davis leads the league with 2.92). Dive deeper though, and you’ll find that those stat totals are deceiving. While Davis has more blocks, opponents are only shooting 49.1% against Gasol to 50.9% against Davis. This difference may seem minimal, but it can actually be the difference between a win and a loss.

Gasol’s most important trait, however, is his defensive awareness. Gasol is almost always in the right place, quarterbacking Memphis’s defense in sync with the opposing offense and doing all of the little things coaches always seem to talk about – subtle reaches into passing lanes, or rarely overhelping himself out of position. These nuances in his game make Gasol one of the league’s best interior defenders.

Meanwhile, on the offensive end, Gasol has helped propel a surprisingly potent Grizzlies team to an offensive efficiency rating of 105.2, tied for tenth with offensive juggernaut Portland. Gasol is currently averaging 19.2 points (shattering his previous career high of 14.6) and 8.3 rebounds per game. Even casual Grizz fans have come to respect Gasol’s trademark moves: the running hook and the 18-foot jumper.

As the Grizzlies offensive output has increased, so has Gasol’s usage. During the 2011-12 season, Gasol’s usage rate was 19.1% as Memphis had the ninthworst offense in the NBA. Since then, Gasol’s usage has steadily ballooned. This season, for instance, Gasol’s usage rate is up to a healthy 25.4% – in other words, one-fourth of Memphis’s possessions have ended with Gasol losing the basketball either through a shot attempt or turnover.

Gasol is also becoming a dominant post-up player alongside fellow big Zach Randolph. So far this season, Gasol has had the fifth-highest points per post-up rating in the NBA (minimum 200 post-ups), alongside Randolph, with the ninth highest such rating. This one-two combo, along with good midrange game from both bigs, gives the Grizzlies good floor spacing on the court despite having few marksmen from outside the arc.

However, Gasol’s best offensive strength may be his court vision and passing, where most league executives agree that he is one of the league’s top two passing bigs (along with Pau). Gasol has grown a reputation since entering the league as a highlight-reel passer – in fact, sports blogger Dan Carson recently christened him “The Spanish Larry Bird” – however, most of his passes are simple, plain-looking bullets fired directly into the arms of waiting teammates.

During the 2014-15 season Marc Gasol has broken out as one of the top big-men in the NBA. However, his tenure in Memphis may soon be coming to an end. This offseason, Gasol’s contract will expire and he will be free to join any team he wishes. Will our Big Spaniard be with the Grizzlies this time next season? Only time will tell, but right now, Grizzlies fans, is a special opportunity. The Grizzlies have a truly transcendent player on their roster. Enjoy it while it lasts.