PHOENIX — Marcin Gortat has finally been set free.
In a league of opportunity, Gortat had none the past three and a half seasons in Orlando, checking out of ballgames the second Superman was ready to return to action.
But Gortat’s stellar stretch of basketball the past three weeks stems from more than just getting a chance to play. After years of worry over his future in Orlando, his mind finally feels “mentally free,” as Gortat put it, as he takes his talents to a situation that suits him perfectly.
“The first thing when I came to Phoenix and I went to the locker room and I saw him I say, ‘Hey, how are things going?’” said Polish reporter Lukasz Ceglinski, who was in town for the team’s recent five-game homestand. “And he told me, ‘I’ve got a new life here.’ Big smile.
“It does everything. He got a new life here, coaches trust him, Coach (Gentry) lets him do many things on offense, he very much likes to play with Steve Nash, he’s self confident. It’s everything new for him, and right now he can do things what he was saying he knew that he can do but he couldn’t because of the discipline in Orlando.”
That new life has turned Gortat into a new player the last three weeks after spending some time getting acclimated to his new Phoenix teammates.
After never scoring in double figures in three straight games, Gortat pulled the trick TWICE in an 11-day stretch, culminating with the recent homestand when he set career highs in three straight games and then went for 19 for only the third time in his career in the next one.
From Jan. 19 to Feb. 2 Gortat averaged 17.0 points and 12.1 boards per game in seven contests if you take out the Jan. 24 Philly game in which he only played 10 minutes. That’s pretty astounding for a guy who had never gone over 16 points before doing it in the last three games of that run.
Furthermore, according to NerdNumbers.com, only Kevin Love and Gortat’s old buddy Dwight Howard have recorded better WP48 numbers among qualified players since Jan. 19, with Gortat putting up a fantastic 0.435.
“I think the big thing is that he’s never had the opportunity to play,” Gentry said. “He’s never been a player that was in the rotation … he’s not gotten consistent minutes where he knows every night he is going to play 25-30 minutes. The more he plays, the more comfortable he gets, the better he will get.”
Even Ceglinski, a Polish reporter who has covered Gortat since he started playing professionally in Germany, has been caught off guard by Marcin’s stellar play of late.
To Ceglinski, Gortat’s increased role in the offense almost reminds him of how he plays for the Polish national team, where he is the squad’s lone NBA player, in that he enjoys the freedom to score in many different ways.
How Gortat went from a bench player averaging 4.0 points and 4.7 rebounds per game to a bonafide scorer on a high-powered Suns offense largely has to do with the fact his fit is as good as the Hedo Turkoglu experiment was bad.
Gortat was a mobile, rebounding big man who thrives in the pick-and-roll game and needed an opportunity while the Suns needed exactly that skill set and had time to offer at the center position.
“He told me a few days ago the Phoenix Suns for sure is the best team in the whole NBA for him right now because of Steve Nash, because of the system, because of the coach, because of everything,” Ceglinski said. “Because they trust in him, it’s very important for him.”
Any fan with a drop of basketball knowledge can see how good the fit is in Phoenix and how Gortat really just needed an opportunity.
I wanted to know more about Gortat’s mentality away from the court so I asked Ceglinski whether Gortat ripping his team to shreds following its embarrassing defensive effort Dec. 29 against Philly was typical Gortat or just a moment of frustration.
“We’ve got the impression in Poland that sometimes he’s too honest and he talks too much about the team, about himself, about the rivals, about everyone, sometimes,” Ceglinski said. “When he’s talking he’s not playing good, and when he stops talking about everything and he is concentrating on himself and his game then he is playing.
“And I see the difference because when we read your reports after his first games in Phoenix after the Philadelphia game we were kind of surprised. ‘Hey Marcin, you’re there for a few days. You are on a veteran team with Steve and Grant and Vince Carter. You cannot talk things like that even if that is true because Steve is the person who can talk about that and you are a new guy here.’
“I think he understands that. I see the difference. Right now he is talking about many things, he is very honest, he’s a funny guy, he likes to talk about everything, but he’s not so, I wouldn’t say rude, but he’s not so open to talk about the bad things in the team and he starts to play.”
With this knowledge in tow, his outburst makes more sense. It wasn’t the new guy calling everybody out, it was just Gortat being Gortat, speaking his mind honestly in a time of struggle.
Ceglinski also shed some light on how big of a star Gortat is back in Poland, saying he’s no worse than the third biggest professional athlete today (not counting sports like skiing) and the face of Polish basketball as well as the leader of the national team.
When he returns to his home country during the summer he puts on basketball events for children, promotes a healthy style of life, and sometimes even appears on a morning television show.
“With all respect to Polish players, coaches and teams, I think when ordinary people in Poland think about basketball they think about Gortat,” Ceglinski said.
Gortat, 26, also previously told Polish reporters he wanted to sign one more big NBA contract when his current pact runs out in 2013-14 but he has since decided to focus his attention game by game instead of worrying about where he will be when he’s 30.
Perhaps that’s because Gortat no longer hears a ticking sound in his head counting down the days left in his career, wondering how old he will be when he finally gets his shot.
His time has come after lurking in the shadows of Superman for three and a half seasons, and he’s making the most of a perfect situation, producing better than what many thought was possible, except perhaps himself as he said he was “100 percent sure” he’d be good at his introductory presser.
“I’m just glad for that opportunity that I have here,” Gortat said. “Very good coach who gave me a lot of freedom, playing time and a lot of teammates who trust in me and passing the ball to me. I’m just grateful I have this opportunity, and I’m just trying to be productive.
“I still believe I can do better.”
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