By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – With so much attention focused this preseason on Philadelphia center Joel Embiid’s NBA debut after two years recovering from foot surgeries, it might be easy to overlook the steady progress Marc Gasol has made so far amid his own comeback from a similar injury.
That’s just fine with the Grizzlies’ franchise center.
“Everything’s quiet, and that’s encouraging because we’ve never had a setback," Gasol said of pushing through his third start in as many preseason games. “I never had to be worried about my foot postgame. So far, it’s been good. Obviously, it’s still a long way to go to be who I am. But the reaction to the work and everything that’s being put in has been outstanding."
Gasol faced his latest test on the path to regaining his footing from last spring’s season-ending surgery when Grizzlies coach David Fizdale extended his playing time during Tuesday’s 121-91 preseason win over the 76ers. After seeing action in only the first halves of the first two preseason games, Gasol played well into the third quarter against Philadelphia and finished with nine points, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 20 minutes.
And for the third time in as many outings, Gasol was able to gauge his conditioning and agility against an opposing dynamic center. Tuesday’s matchup featured two of the NBA’s more massive big men who are using the preseason to make a league-wide statement about their respective status.
This is Embiid’s first action since he was drafted third overall in 2014 out of Kansans and endured two surgeries on his right foot that delayed his rookie season. He has been restricted to 12 minutes in preseason games and had another encouraging start Tuesday with 13 points, five rebounds and a block.
During the halftime break, the 7-2 Embiid and the 7-1 Gasol spent several minutes together talking near midcourt. Before the game, Embiid told several of his coaches he planned to pattern parts of his game after Gasol and become one of the most versatile centers in the league.
“He’s certainly got good taste," 76ers coach Brett Brown said of Embiid’s comments regarding Gasol.
So far, Gasol has shown no signs of limitations in his return from a Feb. 20 surgery to repair a fractured navicular bone in his right foot. The meticulous rehab process also kept Gasol off Spain’s national team roster that competed at the Rio Summer Olympics. During media day last month, Gasol talked at length about the frustrations he dealt with in the offseason, but now he’s starting to see more positive results.
He had productive moments against Orlando’s Nic Vucevic in the preseason opener and then Atlanta’s Dwight Howard before heading into Tuesday’s Embiid assignment.
“He looks like he’s eager to play more," Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said of Gasol. “He’s not acting like, ‘Aw man, I only got to play 12 or 14 minutes.’ He’s looking like he’s ready to play 25 or 30, and I’m happy about the way he’s moving."
Gasol is now moving toward the Oct. 26 season opener against Minnesota with patience and positive reinforcement at the midway point of the preseason.
“You always want to see how you feel once you get into the game with a matchup that’s special," Gasol said. “You want to bang and go at those guys. The competitive nature kicks in and it’s not that easy to sit back and ice your knees and ice your ankles. I know how bad I want it, but I also have to be patient because I know how long it’s been since I last played some games in February."
The Grizzlies used a 22-4 run in the third quarter to reestablish control in the blowout win. Fizdale already planned to play his starters into the third quarter for the first time this preseason, but he had even more incentive after seeing his team outworked and outscored 33-18 in the second quarter. But Conley and Gasol revved up the pace again after intermission, JaMychal Green anchored the defense and James Ennis and Zach Randolph nailed crucial three-pointers to cap the decisive spurt.
Conley refused to take the night off for his 29th birthday. Instead, the lefty point guard took the ball to the basket with an ankle-bending, left-to-right crossover dribble to split two Philadelphia defenders before he dropped in a feathery-soft floater with his right hand. The play put Memphis ahead 46-29.
Zach Randolph. Who said coming off the bench would be a demotion for Z-Bo? Offensively, his light has never been greener. When Fizdale vowed to “highlight the hell out of (Randolph)," as a member of the second unit, performances such as the one against the Sixers is what both player and coach had in mind.
Randolph set Twitter ablaze as word quickly spread throughout the league that he was raining threes from all over the court against Philadelphia. He shot 6-for-9 from the field, including 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, and finished with 17 points in 17 minutes. If it were a regular-season game, the four threes would have matched his career high from a 2009 game against Memphis as a member of the Clippers.
“Whatever coach needs me to do, I’m going to do," Randolph said. “Like an iguana, I’m going to adapt."
Barring a stunning development in the next two weeks, the Grizzlies are certain to keep a Troy on the roster entering the season. But the Troy making the biggest impression in the preseason is the one on a make-good training camp invite and not the one acquired in free agency on a guaranteed contract. Undrafted rookie Troy Williams has been the team’s leading scorer in consecutive games after breaking out for 22 points against Philadelphia on the heels of his 15-point effort last week against Atlanta.
Williams, a 6-7 swingman from Indiana, has shot 63.6 percent from the field over the past two games. Troy Daniels, meanwhile, has impressed teammates and coaches in practice but has yet to find his rhythm in games. Daniels is 2-of-11 from the field through three exhibitions and has yet to make a three.
Fizdale reiterated Tuesday the Grizzlies will continue the cautious approach with forward Chandler Parsons, who is making steady progress in his rehab from spring knee surgery. Asked if Parsons would be ready to play if the Grizzlies were facing Game 7 of a playoff series, Fizdale said, “probably not."
“I get a daily briefing – it’s like I’m Secretary of Defense or something," Fizdale said of the updates from trainers on Parsons. “He’s putting a lot of pressure on us to turn him loose. If it were up to him, he’d play (now). I don’t want to put that leg in jeopardy just yet. I’m looking big picture. If we rush this thing and he gets hurt early in the season, we’d be devastated. I wouldn’t want that to happen because we rushed him."
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Grizzlies at Thunder, 7 p.m. Thursday at BOK Center (Tulsa, OK). Tune in to the game on 92.9FM ESPN Radio.