PHOENIX —’s life changed forever on December 18, 2010.
It was a day so important to him that he rattled off the date by heart following Phoenix’s final game, a day when he was not the best backup center in the NBA any longer.
“December 18th was definitely the best day in my life so far,” Gortat said. “I would say it was for me probably bigger than my birthday right now. It was a day where a new chapter opened in my book.”
December 18, of course, was the day the Phoenix Suns acquired Gortat from the Orlando Magic and gave him an opportunity to prove himself as an NBA center after a career being stuck behind the league’s best big man, Dwight Howard.
On that day Gortat no longer had to look over his shoulder ready to be replaced when Superman was ready to return. If he was going strong he would continue to play, and as the season progressed he rarely sat, with Gortat logging nearly 35 minutes per game in March.
Along the way Gortat went from an athletic big man who showed flashes of being a contributor to a consistent performer who tossed up double-doubles on a nightly basis.
In Phoenix Gortat found a perfect situation with an incumbent center instruggling through an awful season and one of the best passers of all-time craving a roll man with the skills Gortat possesses.
Gortat’s speed for a big man fit well with Phoenix’s up-tempo attack and his defensive rebounding prowess (seventh in the NBA with a 27.4 rebound rate) made him an ideal fit for what was the worst defensive rebounding team in basketball.
With a gregarious demeanor that’s helped him ingratiate himself to the Valley on top of his ability on the court, Gortat has immediately become one of the most important building blocks of the eventual post-Nash future, a stunning turn of events for a player still waiting for his big break just over five months ago.
“It’s a different story finishing the season in my old team and knowing that I’m still a backup and starting and getting 35 minutes a game,” Gortat said. “It’s just a great feeling. … It’s just fun, it’s really fun playing basketball right now. You have a lot of kids coming over and talking to me. It’s a great feeling, and I’m really grateful for everything that’s going on right now.”
Gortat’s numbers continued to rise as he got more time, as he went from averaging 10.7 points and 8.1 boards in 23.7 minutes per game in January to 13.3 and 9.3 in 30.1 in February to 15.3 and 10.8 in 34.7 in March to a very similar 15.0 and 10.6 in April.
The size-starved Suns knew they were getting a contributor who would make an immediate impact on the glass and Gortat figured to give them another threat as a roll man in the pick-and-roll game, but since he had never averaged more than 16 minutes per game in Orlando and traditionally averaged around four points and four rebounds per game, Phoenix did not exactly know what it had in Gortat.
“To be honest with you I think it was quite a surprise to everyone,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “We thought he was pretty solid, I don’t know if we anticipated him being as good as he eventually was. You play him 30 minutes and he pretty much is going to be assured of getting a double-double. I think he’s a better rebounder than we anticipated. … . When you start talking about the centers in this league there’s only a few elite guys and then I think he would be right in there with the next tier of centers.”
Gortat has proven he can be a force in this league, but now comes the part where he can transform himself from a very good player to a great player.
Improving his low post game ranks at the top of his offseason to-do list. Gortat can score in the post on mismatches, but his post game isn’t developed enough to the point where the Suns can throw it down low regardless of his matchup and feel confident about him getting a bucket or a double team.
Since he was asked to solely defend and rebound during his court time with Orlando it’s understandable he did not refine his post game with the Magic, but if he’s going to become the go-to guy and team leader he wants to be then he needs to become a reliable post player.
Gentry added that Gortat must develop a stronger core so he can hold his ground in the post better, and while he’s a “terrific defensive rebounder” the head coach would like to see him be more aggressive on the offensive glass.
The good news for Suns fans is Gortat isn’t satisfied with his breakout season. During Gortat’s exit interview Gentry verbalized the areas in which he must improve, and now it’s up to the Polish center to integrate the low post game into his already impressive arsenal of skills.
“Obviously there’s still a lot of things I have to improve,” Gortat said. “I’d like to make a little statement that I want to work hard this summer and come back twice better next year, and I’m definitely going to try to help Steve and Grant to be also one of the leaders on this team and help the team to make the playoffs.”
If Gortat does all that then December 18, 2010, will be remembered just as fondly by Suns fans as it is by Gortat.