By Chris Sheridan
NEW YORK -- Not too long ago, Zach Randolph was best known for his big huge contract, his flabby midsection and his round, chubby face. And Randolph's running mate on the Memphis Grizzlies' front line, Marc Gasol, once carried around so much extra poundage that he was dubbed "the Big Burrito" when he was in high school.
Well, times and tonnages certainly have changed, and the fattest things about those two Grizzlies were the lines they put up -- Randolph's 31 points and 25 rebounds, and Gasol's 25 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists -- as the Grizzlies won their fourth consecutive road game Saturday night by defeating the woefully undersized New York Knicks 120-109.
"Zach would have probably had 30 rebounds if guys hadn't kept stealing rebounds from him because he can't jump," joked Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, whose team moved a game back above .500 while closing out a disappointing month of February with a 5-8 record.
Memphis sits in a virtual tie for 10th place in the Western Conference, currently suffering through a six-game home losing streak that has deflated their playoff hopes.
But they easily have one of the strongest starting fives in the entire NBA, and one big piece of that success is the little brother of Pau Gasol -- and when we say little, we can't underemphasize the significance of that word.
The Grizzlies say Gasol has dropped 25 pounds and reduced his body fat by 10 percent since joining them as a 23-year-old rookie last season, and Gasol said he was toting around at least an extra 10 pounds two years earlier when he first burst onto the international basketball scene coming off the bench for the Spanish team that won the 2006 World Championship in Japan.
"I didn’t know the kid that much 4-5 years ago, I didn't know if he'd become a player or not, but he has," said New York coach Mike D'Antoni, who got his first glimpse of the younger Gasol as an assistant to coach Mike Krzyzewski on the U.S. national team that finished third at the 2006 Worlds. "He's very efficient, smart. He might be the best Gasol of the two, I don't know, that's saying a lot. But he's really good.
"Before he had a lot of baby fat going on, just a young body, but that's normal," D'Antoni said. "Now he’s got a great body. He’s turned into a man. He’s strong, and he's a very dominant center. He has smarts, he can pass and he's very efficient offensively."
Gasol was drafted by the Lakers and had his rights traded to Memphis in the deal that sent Pau to Los Angeles, and his improvement over his first 141 NBA games has been steady enough to put him in the mix for this season's Most Improved Player award.
While covering the 2006 World Championship in Japan, the 2007 EuroBasket in Madrid and 2008 Olympic Games in China, I got to know quite a few Spanish sports journalists, more than one of whom told me that when their NBA and FIBA careers are all said and done, Marc will go down as having been a better player than Pau. And yes, even more so than D'Antoni, they were serious.
That may seem like a stretch now, but if Marc Gasol can replicate the strides he has made in the past half-decade, it is not an impossibility.
For one thing, the younger Gasol is considered considerably more feisty.
Hollins spent five and a half seasons working with Pau Gasol as an assistant coach before the Grizzlies traded him, then took over as Memphis' head coach for the final 39 games last season, which puts him in a unique position to critique the relative merits of the two.
"I think that at the same stage of their careers, Marc is more mature," Hollins said. "Pau was a big kid, liked to have fun, liked to play, a practical joker, and Marc’s a lot more serious. I think that comes from being a middle child versus being the older one. I think he has had somebody to follow, so he's grown up quicker than Pau probably had to.
"When I coached Pau, it was his second year in the league. Pau is a much more skilled player, much more gifted, but with that being said, Marc is every much the competitor as Pau. He competes, he's a worker and he's tough. When you have talent and skill, you can get away with less. When you’re not as skilled, God gives us all a way to be successful, and Marc not being as skilled as Pau has given [him] a little bit more fortitude, but that doesn’t mean that Pau doesn't have all of that. It’s just not on the same level as Marc."
The younger Gasol bristles at the comparisons, but there's one area where he strongly believes he is already a better player than his big brother: Shooting from the 3-point line.
"I’m pretty sure I can beat him in a 3-point contest any time of day," said Marc, who was a 41-percent 3-point shooter in his final three seasons in Spain's ACB but is 0-for-2 on 3-pointers in his NBA career. (His big brother is 18-for-80).
Quite a boast from a guy who hasn't made an NBA 3-pointer yet, eh? Perhaps he was talking about shooting 3s from the shorter FIBA distance?
"Either line," Marc responded. "Any line you put it, it doesn’t matter. He knows it, too. He doesn’t take it personally."