Lakers leaning on Pau Gasol

"I'm That Dude."

Pau Gasol wore a T-shirt with that statement on it a couple of weeks ago in Barcelona, where his hometown fans were literally climbing fences to get a look at their prized son and a mural of his scraggly haired head was being painted in his honor.

It was a welcome show of bravado from the Los Angeles Lakers forward. With Kobe Bryant slow to recover from offseason knee surgery and Andrew Bynum out for at least the first month of the regular season with a knee injury of his own, Gasol, a three-time All-Star, will be counted on to lead the Lakers.

But after an uninspiring preseason from Gasol -- he averaged 17 points and 7.8 rebounds, but shot just 46.5 percent from the field and struggled defensively at times -- the message on Gasol's T-shirt seems about as fitting as Michael Scott's "World's Best Boss" mug on "The Office."

Gasol is good enough for NBA commissioner David Stern. Stern said Gasol "really has changed the appetite for basketball enormously in Catalonia and Barcelona," when he was in Europe earlier this month.

Gasol is good enough that team general managers voted him as the best power forward in the league (tied with Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki) in a recent NBA.com survey, putting him ahead of San Antonio's Tim Duncan, Boston's Kevin Garnett, New York's Amare Stoudemire and Miami's Chris Bosh.

Gasol was good enough to get past Garnett in the NBA Finals last season and past Orlando's Dwight Howard in the Finals two seasons ago, on his way to two championship rings.

But with Los Angeles' season tipping off Tuesday against the Houston Rockets, is Gasol good enough for the Lakers?

When Bryant was out with an ankle injury in February, Gasol stepped up and became the team's first option. In the five games Bryant missed, Gasol averaged 18.4 points, 12.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 3.2 blocks and the Lakers went 4-1, including wins in tough road arenas in Portland and Utah. With Bryant still rounding into form (he shot less than 30 percent from the field in the preseason) in the early going this fall, the door is open for Gasol to step up again.

The team has challenged him to run through it.

"I don't know if he'll be ready to do that at the start of the season, but yes, we certainly would [welcome that]," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I think that he's kind of easing himself into this year, I haven't seen that spark. He's not quite as efficient as usual. Pau's a 55-54 percent shooter and he hasn't been at those numbers yet. We do hope that he finds that."

After a whirlwind offseason that included trips to China, Greece, India, South Africa, Spain and Ethiopia for Gasol, Jackson chidingly suggested the Spaniard was "still on vacation" midway through training camp. After Gasol managed just 12 points and eight rebounds when Lamar Odom was out of the lineup against an undersized Golden State team, assistant coach Brian Shaw said, "We want Pau to step up and have a presence in the paint, and I don't think he provided that."

Gasol's talent comes with a burden. The Lakers want to see the bug-eyed, chest-pounding, screaming Gasol more often -- the Gasol who pulled down the biggest rebound of the Lakers' season earlier this year, not by using proper box out techniques, but by literally throwing a Celtic player out of his way in order to secure the loose ball.

A former teammate from Gasol's days with the Memphis Grizzlies, reached on the phone this week, praised him as an atypical franchise player: "He was down to earth, talking to everybody and he would treat everybody nicely whether it was the training staff or the equipment guy, guys who were lowest on the totem pole." But he also said Gasol's approach sometimes left the team wanting their star to be more selfish. "I think that was a problem in Memphis," the player said. "He was not as assertive and was a little bit too nice and not as forceful as he needed to be."

As he enters his ninth NBA season, the 30-year-old welcomes the responsibility of meeting those expectations.

"I've always been a player that has stepped up to what the situation requires and what the team needs," Gasol said. "I'm going to do whatever is asked of me.

"I'll hopefully be playing a lot of minutes and producing and being a reliable force or presence inside. ... The sky's the limit. I've been very ambitious and I've responded pretty well to all the challenges in my career."

Last season, hamstring problems caused Gasol to miss 17 games. This summer, he decided to walk away from basketball completely, declining to play with the Spanish national team in the FIBA World Championship so he could let his body rest. Gasol's preseason output led some to wonder whether the rest led to rust, but he doesn't second-guess his decision.

"I can't imagine if I played this summer how I would be feeling right now," Gasol said. "I'm glad I made that decision. It was tough at the time. Obviously, I love playing basketball and I love playing for my country also, but I feel the decision has been right. It's feeling right at this point."

While some might think late October games don't really matter for a team that has played deep into June the past three seasons, consider that Miami, Boston and Orlando will all be vying with L.A. for the best record in the league. Home-court advantage was crucial when the Lakers faced off against the Celtics in Game 7 of the Finals earlier this year. If they give away a couple of games now, waiting for Gasol to fully assert himself, the Lakers might have to take their show on the road to win the ring again.

These games, and the Gasol who suits up for them, are crucial; a fact that's not lost on him.

"I look forward to the start on Tuesday," Gasol said. "I'll be really aggressive on both ends and step up the intensity level because it's going to be key for us to get going that way -- to be intense on both ends of the court. And it starts with me, too."

The challenge has been issued. And accepted. We'll see if "that dude" abides.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.