Marc Gasol first impression offers Raptors new dimension

There’s a new kid on the block.

While it’s normal for the traditional scenario to have the neighborhood kids apprehensive about what to expect, this is one where finding those with rooting interests isn’t difficult by any means. The Toronto Raptors need Marc Gasol, and they need him to be great. That next level he can provide stems from an ability to impact in a manner that belies his numbers.

Making your teammates better is often the cliché associated with all-stars and superstars, that transcendent ability to lift others around you and ensure that even when your individual self isn’t at its best, the team’s floor is still well above sea level.

In Kyle Lowry, Toronto has had a first-hand look at what that type of player looks like for years, and this season they’ve been spoiled by Kawhi Leonard’s all-encompassing skills. On some level, Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster & co. had to believe it wasn’t enough to make this trade, though. Lowry isn’t a secondary scorer in the half-court as he once was, and variability in attack is pivotal in the playoffs.

In 19 minutes, Gasol provided a preview of how he can help, all caveats of a New York Knicks team that’s now 3-31 in their last 34 games be damned. In some ways, with no practice time, no games together, and probably not having even opened the playbook yet, it’s kind of nice to see how he can operate purely based off feel and instinct.

Minutes with key cogs

Gasol got some playing time with the the starters minus Serge Ibaka with under seven minutes remaining in a one-possession game. He served primarily as an off-ball screen setter on offense and the attention and respect he demands was notable. He attempted one shot, a fadeaway left-elbow jumper over DeAndre Jordan off a play primarily designed to free up Lowry at the right extended elbow.

Jordan also had a go at him on the other end, posting him up despite being knocked from his spot and the result was as you might expect. Jordan struggled to create separation, Gasol went vertical as Jordan looked to turn for a hook shot, and Gasol met Spalding and sent it out of bounds.

He had a few other plays either boxing out or using his defensive instincts to ensure the Raptors came away with the board or got out in transition and he could be seen constantly looking to communicate and let his teammates know what was happening around them. That’s what you expect from a former Defensive Player of the Year, and this aspect of his game will only become more pronounced as he and his new teammates grow comfortable with each other.

The second quarter provided some noteworthy moments as well, as Gasol played alongside Fred VanVleet, Lowry, Leonard and Danny Green.

I love this sideline out of bounds look for Gasol. With VanVleet and Green weakside, there’s no real opportunity for defenders to cheat. Lowry does a great (maybe slightly illegal) job of holding off Jordan, and Leonard makes the pass at the right time to get Gasol a wide open look. He’ll make those more often than not.

There’s much more to be seen here, and more contextual opponents in the Brooklyn Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics to come later this month.

Early chemistry with Norman Powell

Of particular interest to me, was the early chemistry Gasol seemed to share with Powell. His first basket as a Raptor came off a nice little dump feed from the former UCLA guard and Gasol showed his experience in sealing off his man the second he had room to maneuver. After consuming Kevin Knox with his screen to force a switch, he just slips off the 2018 ninth overall pick to create an easy angle for Powell to feed him.

Gasol was repeatedly looking to return the favor the rest of the way, routinely teeing up open looks for Powell that he was unfortunately unable to cash in on.

This looped skip pass doesn’t look flashy by any means, but how many big men are really seeing that option? These are plays where even teammates will need some getting used to, understanding that his unique skills and mind allow him to make these plays from a position few others can.

The synergy wasn’t always on point between the two, though, as a clear lack of familiarity had Gasol going to re-screen for Powell when the swingman had already identified a driving lane and almost had the two colliding with each other. No harm, no foul as Powell finished at the rim for the and-1 anyway.

Go-to option

No matter the jersey, the elbows are where Gasol resides on the basketball court and does his best work. It just so happens that it’s also been a major area of weakness for the Raptors as well.

That’s where he operated from when he entered the game with the bench unit and showed exactly the type of acumen he’s been heralded for by simply looking to orchestrate the offense rather than look to get his own. Head always up, on a swivel, reading, anticipating, putting his teammates in positions to succeed.

There will be times when the team will need him to be a scorer as elite defenses key in on Leonard, and at his best, he can be exactly the type of secondary scorer the team needs and help support a second unit by preventing actions from going stale.

He can pop from three (something that will be especially vital in a potential playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks), he score with ease in the midrange, and as we saw earlier, use his body inside to create separation and score inside. He may not be as proficient a scorer as Jonas Valanciunas down there, but it’s the variability in attack and his ability to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts that can add another dynamic to the Raptors offense in the playoffs.

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