PHOENIX — For the fourth straight season Marcin Gortat sat and watched.
He sat and watched Dwight Howard play after his brief six-minute bursts that ended no matter how productive he was because it was time for Superman to return to the floor.
He then went home and sat and watched other young centers like Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez and even Robin Lopez get significant playing time while his lack of burn stemmed from backing up the best player at his position.
So when Marcin Gortat heard he was being traded from the Magic to a Phoenix Suns team that’s been searching for a quality center forever, his reaction was first mixed leaving a title contender in Orlando but with each passing moment he became more excited about the opportunity in front of him.
“You just realize that you’re 26 years old and you’re entering your best years in your NBA career and all of a sudden you’re sitting on the bench,” Gortat said. “You’ve got to be frustrated, and all of a sudden you’ve got this opportunity going to a team with a great point guard with a perfect style. What else do you need? I’m 100 percent sure I’ll be good.”
Gortat may have just landed in an ideal situation.
Instead of battling Howard, his competition will be a foul-prone fellow young player in Lopez, a center developing quickly but not somebody Gentry would take Gortat out for if he’s playing well. Gentry has been known to ride a hot hand so I would expect both centers to have games where they play the bulk of the minutes.
Gortat’s strengths also match up with Phoenix weaknesses. This year he ranks No. 21 in the entire league in rebound rate, and he was 17th last year and sixth the year before behind noted boarders like Howard, Kevin Love and Marcus Camby when he corralled over a fifth of the rebounds when he was on the floor.
“I’m going to try to bring a lot of energy, defensive presence and try to help this team on the boards, that’s the most important thing,” Gortat said. “Whatever’s going to happen on offense is just going to be an extra thing, and I’m 100 percent sure if I’m going to play solid defense, I’m going to help the team and Steve Nash is going to help me on offense.”
But at 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds Gortat is no lumbering giant. Vince Carter feels like the center is a fit in Phoenix because of his ability to get up and down the floor for easy buckets, and Gortat spoke of his ability to go end to end quickly for a big guy.
Although he does not have much of a jump shot to speak of, Gortat feels like his agility could help him play in a lineup next to the similarly agile Robin Lopez. The Suns should now always be able to play a big man to anchor the defense, and at times they can go with a twin towers lineup and possibly crush somebody else on the glass for a change.
Gortat also displayed a giant personality to match his size Monday afternoon as he opened the proceedings by joking it took him four years to get his first press conference and later followed an intense Carter answer on why he’s excited to be in Phoenix by announcing he’s glad to be a Sun for the orange jerseys.
Gortat has history in Phoenix as the Suns drafted him with the No. 57 pick in the second round of the 2005 Draft before dealing him to Orlando, and he enjoyed a breakout performance a few years ago in the Valley against the Suns when Howard got hurt late — details that Gortat readily rattled off on his own.
Gortat no longer will have to wait for an injury to Superman to receive significant minutes, but he hasn’t forgotten the lessons — or the bruises –- from Howard.
“You need to have the jaw of iron,” Gortat said of those practice sessions. “I’ve received a lot of punches, I’ve received a lot of elbows, shoulders and all kind of crap from him. I’m ready, there’s nobody else who can hurt me in this league. I’ve been going hard for four years against this guy. Trust me, for me practice was tougher than the game. When you are going to the game I was happy I was going to play against somebody else.”
Now Gortat will only have to face Howard when the Magic come to town, and the only dishing this team’s superstar will be doing to Gortat will come in the form of assists, as former teammate Jason Williams told Gortat all he needs to do is run the break and Nash will find him.
Gortat has been champing at the bit for four years for the kind of opportunity he has in front of him and thus he brings a brash attitude confident in his abilities to contribute on the court as well as a lighthearted sense of humor that should make him a favorite in the locker room.
The Suns needed an agile, bruising center who can rebound, and Gortat needed a team that could give him an opportunity to prove himself.
If only every acquisition made this much sense for both sides.
“I’m 100 percent sure I can make a difference in this team, I can help this team,” Gortat said. “I’m excited. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for a couple of years.”