Mike Conley has made 653 more career three-pointers than his Memphis Grizzlies teammate Marc Gasol. So winning a friendly shooting competition — make as many consecutive trifectas as possible — against him should have been an easy feat, right?
Once the 7'1" Gasol, a center who had only made 10 career three-pointers heading into the start of his eighth NBA season, settled in to the left corner of a FedExForum practice court on a recent Tuesday morning, he put the 6'1" point guard away. Conley missed his first attempt from the spot. Gasol knocked down 11 straight, nearly all of them touching nothing but net.
Conley wasn't surprised. He knows Gasol's gifts, and they aren't limited to inside scoring. "Marc has a unique skill set for a big guy," Conley says. "He's like a point guard in a 7-footer's body."
Is he scared Gasol might take his starting role? "Sometimes!" Conley jokes.
No worries, Mike. Gasol isn't after your job. He is just fine being the NBA's best center. The towering titan is coming off a successful 2014--15 campaign that saw him earn his first-ever All-Star Game start, an All-NBA First Team selection, and a new five-year, $110 million contract with the Grizzlies. But what makes Gasol truly outstanding is that he's multi-faceted. The 30-year-old, who came to Memphis by way of Spain, can do a bit of everything. He can bang in the paint, pass out of the post, provide rim protection — and it seems he now has the ability to cause damage on the perimeter.
"Marc is a playmaker. That may be bizarre to say about a big, but he can play out on the elbows and facilitate the offense," Memphis head coach David Joerger says. "That's huge for us."
Gasol first learned the art of adapting when he moved from his native Barcelona, Spain, to Tennessee in 2001 as a 16-year-old. After his big brother, Pau (five years older and currently a forward-center with the Chicago Bulls), was acquired by the Grizzlies in a draft day trade, the entire Gasol family settled in Germantown, a Memphis suburb. The move was a major adjustment for Marc. "I didn't speak English," he recalls.
Communicating with classmates and learning American teenage culture was "pretty tough," he adds. "The only place I could express myself was on the court."
And so he did, but not without noticing the differences between his youth hoops experiences in Barcelona and in Memphis. "It was much more strict where I came from. The team I played for, it was almost like a small basketball franchise. Basketball was a priority," Gasol says. "It wasn't the same once I got here. The structure was different. There was a lot of freedom." (That freedom led him to bad eating habits, but he's making better food choices these days! See the box on the next page).
Gasol played two years for Lausanne Collegiate School, where he dominated his position (you'd have been hard-pressed to find another kid to match his 6'10" frame, he says) and was named Mr. Basketball his senior year. He averaged 26 points, 13 boards, and six blocks a game during his final season.
After Laussane, Gasol went home to play for FC Barcelona and Girona in La Liga ACB, Spain's national league. In four seasons in Spain, Gasol developed a stronger low post game before the L.A. Lakers chose him with the 48th pick in the 2007 draft. He never packed his bags for L.A., though. Gasol played another year in ACB and won the league's MVP award. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., he was part of a trade that returned him to Memphis — in exchange for Pau. The brother-for-brother trade, in 2008, was the first of its kind in the NBA.
GRINDING IT OUT
Gasol's first two seasons with the Grizzlies were solid, as he stepped into the starting lineup and hit more than 50% of his shots from the field. By the 2010--11 season Gasol, along with Conley, guard Tony Allen, and forward Zach Randolph, had established a fervent style of play called Grit & Grind basketball that revived the Grizzlies, who had suffered a string of four straight sub-.500 seasons.
Grit & Grind is the type of team basketball that wears opponents down with high-pressure defense and scrapping for loose balls. Another hallmark of Grit & Grind is rallying from deficits. The Grizzlies did that when they won four straight games after trailing the Los Angeles Clippers 0--2 in the opening round of the 2013 playoffs. The Grizzlies then blew away the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder to reach the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. After the season, Gasol was named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. "[Grit & Grind] might not be the prettiest basketball, and we may not make the highlight reel. But nothing comes easy when you play us," he says.
Gasol's feistiness is most likely a result of going toe-to-toe with big brother Pau. "Things got heated," Gasol says of those battles as kids (and adults). "We wouldn't talk to each other for a little bit. But then things were fine at the dinner table. We try not to play one-on-one now because it can get too intense."
They just can't avoid the matchup on the NBA hardwood, though. The kid brother has shown he can hold his own against any competition. Last season, Gasol was a stud on Memphis's front line, averaging a career-high 17.4 points with 7.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.
Grizzlies fans are hoping for a repeat performance from Gasol after he re-signed with the team during last summer's free agency period. "I didn't get far in imagining myself in another city. Memphis has meant so much to me," he says. "I had to come back."
That makes the Memphis faithful happy. He's just as delighted trying to lead the team deep into the playoffs this season. "We want to win every game, obviously, but numbers-wise, I could see us at 60 wins," Gasol says. "That could give us home court advantage early in the playoffs, which is important."
And Gasol will reach into his basketball bag of tricks to do a little bit of everything to push his team, whether that means executing outlet passes or hanging out beyond the arc.
"All those things bottled up in one guy, you don't see that often," Conley says. "He's special."
Photos: Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images (Warriors), John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated (action)