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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – Spend any amount of time with Marc Gasol and one of the first things you’ll notice about the big Spaniard is his Thumility.

The 35-year-old has a wealth of knowledge on a wide range of subjects – relating to and outside of basketball – and he’s generous enough with his time to share it. Ask him about pick and roll coverage, politics or wine and he’ll gladly fill your notebook.

The one topic that Gasol isn’t especially interested in talking about is: Gasol. Don’t expect the veteran centre to pat himself on the back. After 12 seasons in the NBA, the former Defensive Player of the Year has become quite good at politely swatting away questions that are designed to elicit self-praise.

Ask him about his historic dominance over Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid or Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic and he’ll credit his team’s collective defensive effort. Ask him if he’s thought about his chances of making the Hall of Fame when his illustrious NBA and international careers come to an end and he’ll tell you it hasn’t crossed his mind.

So, when he finally spoke to the media for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to see him quickly shift the conversation away from his recent physical transformation. But, hey, we had to give it a shot.

The legend of ‘Skinny Marc’ started to grow when a photo of the slimmed-down Gasol began to circulate online in June. How did he use the time off to get himself in such great shape?

“It goes with training regimen, goals, sleeping habits, everything,” Gasol told reporters on a Zoom call from the Disney bubble, following the Toronto Raptors’ Wednesday morning practice session. “Obviously, when you’re at home, everything is a lot easier than when you’re on the road and travelling and trying to make everything work and [to] win games.”

Did he lose weight?

“Sure.”

How much?

“Not really sure. I don’t think that’s really relevant. What’s important. like I said, what we’ll all be measured by is winning games and getting another ring. That’s what we’re all here for. We’re all trying to be in the best situation [individually] to do that.”

Fortunately, at least for our purposes, his teammates and coaches have a lot more to say on the subject of Gasol’s conditioning. Like the rest of us, they saw the photo on social media, but know that images can be deceiving, especially in this day and age. They needed to see it for themselves. When the Raptors reconvened in Fort Myers, Fla., for pre-camp workouts late last month and everybody first saw Gasol, they were stunned.

“I had to do a double take, I won’t lie,” said assistant coach Adrian Griffin. “I was so impressed about the way he looks. He just looks phenomenal.”

“I was shocked seeing him,” guard Patrick McCaw added. “It was like, ‘sheesh,’ I couldn’t really recognize him.”

“The change is that drastic,” said guard Norman Powell. “I make fun of him all the time, [he’s] looking like a soccer player from Barcelona. He looks great, man, he’s moving great, he’s feeling great.”

“He looks like prime Marc to me,” guard Terrence Davis said. “So, I don’t know, man. It’s scary.”

Gasol was in Toronto when Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11, and the season – followed by most of North American living – was quickly put on hold. After going through an initial round of testing – he didn’t play against Gobert and the Jazz a couple nights earlier, but he was in Utah with the team – and clearing the precautionary quarantine period, Gasol spent the next few months in Spain with his wife and two kids. Knowing he was close to his parents, grandparents and uncles in case of emergency helped give him peace of mind.

The details of his training regimen remain a mystery, but Gasol was clear about his motivation for working himself into tip-top shape.

“It was a frustrating season for me personally because I could never get a rhythm and help the team the way that I should be helping the team,” he said. “As soon as the [the Raptors’] facility closed down, I got together with my team on a phone call and got going on a plan to resolve these ongoing issues.”

Gasol was physically and mentally exhausted when training camp opened last fall. He had played more basketball over the previous year than during any other 12-month span of his life.

After appearing in 53 games with Memphis in 2019-20, he was dealt to Toronto ahead of the February trade deadline – changing teams and moving cities for the first time in his career. He would go on to win his first NBA championship with the Raptors last June (and steal the show at the parade) before joining the Spanish National Team and winning the FIBA World Cup later in the summer. He only took a couple weeks off and then it was back to work.

The fatigue may have affected his play early in the season. He got off to a slow start, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, but was beginning to get his rhythm back when he hurt his left hamstring in a win over Detroit just before Christmas.

The lingering injury cost him 28 games over two separate stints. He made his return in Sacramento – playing 16 minutes and sitting out for rest in Utah the following night – just before the season was suspended, but would have probably been at less than 100 per cent for the duration of the campaign and into the playoffs.

The silver lining and unintended consequence of the hiatus was that it gave banged up and burnt-out players a chance to rest and heal. Few needed it more than Gasol.

It’s going to take most players some time to get back into game shape, and it may take even longer for Gasol on account of his age. Head coach Nick Nurse has been encouraging his players – especially Toronto’s veterans – to “self-monitor” and pull themselves from practice if and when they need a breather. Gasol is one of the guys who have taken him up on that a few times during their first week of practice in the NBA bubble, understanding the importance of easing back after a long layoff.

According to Nurse, Gasol’s hamstring is fully healed. That, in addition to his new physique, should pay dividends for the Raptors when they resume their season in Orlando next month, and then even more come playoff time, given how important Gasol is to their success.

Despite struggling with his shot and then battling injuries, the Raptors have outscored opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions with Gasol on the court this season – the best mark among Toronto’s rotation players. Even at less than full speed, he impacts the game with his passing, screen setting, defensive positioning and communication, and high basketball IQ. He’s a hub on both ends of the floor. And now, if he’s a bit quicker on his 35-year-old feet, well, that can’t hurt.

“Maybe the leaner Marc gets to more rebounds, gets him to better defensive positions more quickly,” Nurse said before camp started. “Not that those were a problem [before], but maybe he’s gonna produce more in those [areas now]. Maybe his legs stay in there late in the game for some three-balls. I don’t know. If he can improve, if his conditioning improves him as a player, that’s gonna be a super added bonus for us.”

There’s plenty at stake for Gasol as well. His contract is up after this season and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in the fall. He’s at the back end of his career but he’s proven he still has something left in the tank and can help a team win. But, to little surprise, he says he isn’t thinking about his contractual situation. His goal – same as the motivation for transforming his body – is to help lead the Raptors to another championship.

“I think we’re all here for the same goal and that’s to try to win a ring,” he said, expertly steering away from a question about his upcoming free agency. “Anything outside of that is just not relevant at this moment, it can’t help you and it’s not important. Once we all committed to playing, we’re here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to win.”​