Marcin Gortat was lost in Orlando. Even after signing his first major NBA contract last year he knew his opportunities would be limited in with the Magic, a team that features big time player and big minute eater Dwight Howard. He was destined to be stuck behind those big bowling ball shoulders, fated to be a low-minute back up to an unfadeable superstar.
“I always believed,” said Gortat at his locker after a 17 point, 11 rebound road performance versus the Toronto Raptors in late February. “ I always believed that I was a guy that was going to get some double-doubles. Obviously, I gotta still get better and work on my game but like I said before – I’m going to get boards, I’m going to get some points if I’m going to play consistent minutes. If you play 7-10 minutes a game you might end up with 2 and 2 or 4 and 4 (points and rebounds) and you never know. When you play 30 minutes and you have this feeling that you’re going to play 30 minutes you’re just getting a lot of confidence. You can prepare yourself for the game and just be patient and everything is going to roll fine.”
After a mid-December four-player deal delivered Gortat (2010-11 STATS: 7.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG) from the Magic to the Phoenix Suns along with guard Vince Carter the Suns didn’t exactly about-face their uneven campaign. In fact, there are still major bumps in the road and their current 11-game road trip will go far in determining their season. While the biggest hopes rest on the shoulders of franchise point guard Steve Nash as usual, much of the remainder will depend on the bench play now led by Gortat.
“We’ve been real happy with him,” said Gentry. “This is really the first time he’s ever been a rotation player. When you play behind Dwight Howard you’re either playing when your team is up 20 or when he’s in foul trouble and the foul trouble thing doesn’t happen a whole lot. Here I think he’s been real happy with the fact that he knows he’s going to play 20-32 minutes every night. He’s gotten progressively better as he’s done that and we’ve been really happy with the progress that he’s made.”
No doubt Gortat has slowly started to make his mark and not just in the box-score. A week and a half after his arrival in Phoenix he publicly criticized the team after what he deemed a soft defensive performance in a late December loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. It didn’t sit well with some in the organization – and it took some dust-settling before better understandings prevailed – but Gortat makes no apologies for his approach to team improvement.
“Well, I’m going to be vocal every time when we have to,” said Gortat, a native of Lodz, Poland. “A lot of people told me that I’m not supposed to do this right at the beginning. People told me I said too many things in the media. That’s how I am. Honestly, I don’t give a shit. (If) there is a reason I have to say we don’t play defense then that’s what I’m going to say. I ain’t gonna lie. I’m not going to come in and say ‘Listen, we gotta make more shots.” No, we’ve got to play defense. We’ve got to play better defense because that’s how we’re going to get better and that’s how we’re going to win games. There was a point where I had a dinner with a couple of guys and I just said that I’m going to try to be productive and show on the floor first then we’re going to talk about this. Right now I’m starting from the point where I’m going to show on the floor, try to be productive on the floor, help the team on the floor and then when I come to the bench or when I come back to the locker room I’m going to be vocal and try to help everybody else.”
It’s as much of a compromise from Gortat as you’re going to get. Luckily for the Suns his off-court grit exists on game nights too where the son of a former bronze medal-winning Olympic boxer bobs and weaves his way to the ball.
“It’s positioning,” said Gentry. “He’s a pretty good doggone athlete. For a guy his size he runs, jumps, has good hands so when he goes up for a rebound (and) he gets his hands on it he’s pretty good at clearing the ball.
“We’ve been really surprised with him in the double-double department. When you go back and look, we play him 30 minutes and he usually comes up with a double-double. I think he’s done it seven out of 10 times now where he’s played over 30 minutes and two of those games that he didn’t get a double-double I think he had eight rebounds one game and nine one game. He’s been really efficient for us.”
Gortat mentions his age, 27, a lot when he talks, preceded most often with the words “finally at”. It’s the show of confidence by Gentry and his staff that has him excited about his vision for himself as a member of the Suns. He is fully aware of the chance he has to finally show and prove.
“Huge, huge, huge, huge. Huge,” prefaced Gortat before outlining the difference between Orlando and Phoenix. “Big time, big time. I can’t even describe it. When you don’t have a green light on a team to do certain things it’s really hard to play. Especially when you get into the game and you’re playing these 5-6 minutes a game and after three minutes you have a couple rebounds, couple put-backs, blocks, good stops and all of a sudden you have to come out of the game. It’s frustrating as hell, I ain’t gonna lie. Now everything has changed. I’m mentally free. Nobody’s actually sitting over my head now so I’m just going out there and having fun. Steve is a guy who is always going to find you. It’s fun to play now.”