‘Skinny,’ healthy Marc Gasol could be a boon for Raptors in return

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It was the summer of 2015 and all Toronto Raptors fans could talk about was the sight of their new slimmer-looking point guard.

“Skinny Kyle Lowry” lit up social media and had Raptors fans giddy with anticipation of what his transformed body could mean for the forthcoming 2015-16 season.

As it turned out, the new physique translated into a then-career year for Lowry as he averaged 21.2 points, 6.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds and shot 38.8 per cent from three-point range on 7.1 attempts per game. That season also marked the first time the Raptors had ever reached the conference finals and recorded 50 or more wins in the history of the franchise – 56, to be exact.

Though it’s not direct causation, thanks to Lowry shedding some weight, the Raptors enjoyed the most successful season they’ve ever had up to that point.

So then, to this point, what then happens with the Raptors when the season resumes in Disney World with what appears to be a newly bulked-up Lowry and, more pertinently, a “Skinny Marc Gasol?”

There have been a couple of photos floating around on social media showing Lowry with “Big Poppa Pump” Scott Steiner-like arms, and what appears to be a very slimmed-down Gasol that beget similar questions to when “Skinny Kyle Lowry” first popped up on everyone’s feed.

Is this an indication that two of the defending champions’ best players are primed to have a monster bubble season?

Maybe. At the very least, however, it’s an indication of how well the two, and the entire Raptors team, has kept in shape during this NBA hiatus due to COVID-19.

“It’s good. I mean, I’ve seen Marc myself a few times on some Zoom calls and in mostly just his face in there,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said on a conference call Tuesday in regards to the photos of a more lithe-looking Gasol. “So I thought he was probably trimming down a little bit. But I think both him and Kyle look good, and I mean most of the guys (have).

“We’ve – as you guys probably expect – been asking for weekly weigh-ins and things like that and there hasn’t been any red flags or any issues at all, really.”

Relieving news to hear for any who may have been concerned that multi-million-dollar professional athletes would somehow let themselves go completely in just the three-month span since the season suspension.

A more realistic concern isn’t whether players have kept up a certain level of fitness, but if that level is up to snuff for professional NBA basketball.

According to Nurse, he believes the only way to achieve that is by getting out onto the court and doing basketball things.

“I think there’s a legitimate conditioning thing,” said Nurse. “Getting in basketball shape only happens on the basketball floor, going up and down. It doesn’t happen (in) one-on-one drills, or riding an exercise bike or any of that stuff. So there’ll be some concerns on that stuff, for sure.”

With that said, getting back into proper basketball shape still shouldn’t prove to be very difficult for professional players who take their jobs as seriously as the Raptors appear to do.

In particular, the image of “Skinny Marc Gasol” is a perfect illustration of this point.

Even before the season suspension, Gasol had missed 15 straight games before returning against the Sacramento Kings and then sitting out in the back-to-back versus the Utah Jazz because of left hamstring tightness that had been bothering him — and forced him to miss 12 games before coming back prematurely for seven — since a few days before Christmas.

Gasol already got a lot of time off to rehab, and, like having a hyperbolic time chamber, the additional rest due to the COVID-19 suspension, looks to not only have returned him back to full health, but has, perhaps made him even better than before.

It’s no secret that Gasol was in the midst of one of the worst seasons of his NBA career – the 11.9 PER he recorded this season, according to Basketball Reference, is the actual lowest of his 12-season career.

Whether it was burnout from a long championship run with the Raptors followed by another title run with the Spanish national team during the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, or, perhaps just Father Time catching up to the 35-year-old, it’s clear something was always a little off with the big man all season long.

A better-conditioned, better-rested Gasol certainly can’t hurt things for the Raptors with the season on the verge of resuming.

And even if Gasol’s productivity still doesn’t end up to snuff, as Nurse said, just having him back out there with the team healthy will be a boon.

“I hope, like anything, that Marc’s healed and healthy because we haven’t had him that way much this year, and because you guys know how I feel – he’s as good as it gets at that position,” said Nurse. “So if he’s healthy and gets back in the swing of things, I think that only makes us a better team.”

Nurse has always praised Gasol for his intangibles that contribute to winning, and when you consider the fact that Toronto boasts a .714 winning percentage when Gasol has played, including the post-season, it’s hard to argue those intangibles aren’t actually more concrete.

“I think he’s a huge like pillar on both ends,” Nurse said. “He’s back there on defence directing traffic, protecting the rim, talking, getting guys through screens. He just does everything back there defensively and most of its with his experience and his IQ.

“And I’ve said this 1,000 times but I don’t get tired of saying it: Our offence, whenever we’re in trouble, I say, ‘Throw the ball to Marc and everybody start cutting.’ And usually good things happen, and that is a tremendous luxury to have that settling force in the games.”

Even with Gasol forced to miss a lot of time this season, Nurse has seen that benefit Serge Ibaka, individually, and with the rest of the team as a whole.

“I thing Marc (being) so in and out this year has really made Serge kind of play a lot better. Serge has been better, he’s improved, he’s got more opportunities, so I think that’s only going to help us.”

Specifically, Nurse said the improvement of Ibaka this season coupled with the return of a healthy Gasol could really bolster one of his pet lineups that he’s experimented with in the past.

“I can envision us playing very big (in what) we like to call our ‘Jumbo Lineup’ with OG at the two and Pascal three and Serge at the four and Marc at the five. I can envision that coming in handy here in this year’s playoffs.”

With, presumably, Lowry at point guard in that lineup, that’s one with potential to be downright devastating defensively and with a lot of offensive versatility in terms of playmaking and shot-making all over the floor.

And it could be that much more effective if Gasol is even quicker than before.