Veteran big man Marc Gasol, who has won titles in the FIBA World Cup and in the NBA, will join the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Gasol may not have the presence he had when he emerged as an All-Star in 2012 or when he won NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. But he is still a player who can make a high impact when he is on the court.
The most important aspect for Gasol, who has averaged 3.4 assists per game since entering the league in 2008, is his unique ability as a playmaking big man. Last year, per Cleaning the Glass, his assist percentage ranked in the 90th percentile or better among all bigs for the ninth consecutive season.
When asked about his mentality as a distributor, which has helped define his tenure in the NBA, here is what Gasol had to say (via ESPN):
“I’m an unselfish player by nature. When I see a pass and somebody open, regardless of who it is, I’m going to throw it to them and keep encouraging guys to keep moving and moving without the ball. Because if they get behind their defender or their defender makes a mistake, we’re going to make them pay for it.”
Next season, simply put, there is going to be quite a bit more passing in the offense for Los Angeles with Gasol on the floor. The 35-year-old averaged 43.6 passes per game during his 2019-20 campaign. Compare that with what the Lakers received from Dwight Howard (23.2) and JaVale McGee (16.4) last season and the results are night and day.
To fully understand just how willing of a passer he is, Gasol recorded as many as 62.8 passes per game during his final year with the Memphis Grizzlies. That was good for the fifth-most among all players in the NBA.
With Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell, the Lakers now have more playmaking from their bigs. Gasol has routinely averaged assist rates around 20% — excellent for his position. Though Harrell's closer to the 10% range, he's increasingly diversified his attack from the short roll.
— Positive Residual (@presidual) November 23, 2020
Raptors head coach helped Nick Nurse contextualize just how much that helped his team when they hit a rut and needed a bailout (via NBA.com):
“We’ve made an emphasis that whenever you’re in trouble, throw it to Marc and start flying. Because he’s going to find some passes, he’s going to keep that thing facilitating, he’s going to keep you moving.”
His willingness to help others translates to success as he has been an incredibly effective playmaker, as evidenced by his pure point rating (PPR).
NBA blogger Ian Levy explained PPR as a “single numeric representation of a player’s ability to handle the ball and create positive shot opportunities” for teammates. Gasol finished with the second-best PPR among all centers last season, per RealGM, behind only Denver Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic.
While many might associate Jokic as the league’s only point center, Gasol is right there with him. In fact, he helped pave the way for someone like Jokic.
His playmaking makes life a lot easier for his teammates, as his former teammate Danny Green explained to James Herbert (via CBS Sports):
“Marc’s going to see all those options, he’s going to find you if you’re open. A lot of times, we’ll get to the one option, the one that you know is probably going to open or the one that was safe or the one that we’re trying to play for a certain someone. He’s looking for everybody. So you’ve gotta be very aware and attentive, seeing the ball when it’s coming. I’m not complaining about it.”
However, perhaps the best news for his fit with the Lakers is that he does not require the ball in his hands very often in order to make an impact with his passing.
Players like LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who are both fairly ball-dominant, need to be surrounded by complementary pieces who brag the skill set to set them up but who do not require a high usage rate to do it.
His assist-to-usage percentage (1.18) was a career-high last season, per Cleaning the Glass, and it ranked third-best among big men who recorded at least 250 minutes in 2019-20.
When he joins the Lakers, expect him to make the most impact at the top of the key rather than in the paint. The big man is at his best as a playmaker in a set offense, like handoffs from the dribble or finding his man in the corner on short rolls, rather than pushing the break in transition.
Gasol is at his most comfortable operating at the elbow. This area is defined by the five-foot radius between the edge of the lane and the free-throw line. Gasol led the league in elbow touches each season from 2013-14, when this tracking data first became available on NBA.com, until 2018-19.
During the 2018-19 regular season, he recorded 401 passes from the elbow. Jokic recorded the second-most with just 290, a significant dropoff from the mark that Gasol was able to hit.
All things considered, he is a wildly efficient and talented creator and playmaker who can help bring a new dimension to the offense for the defending champions.