Windy City natives Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis dominated coverage leading into the FIBA Basketball World Cup, but the city's newest resident has turned the most heads since the tournament tipped off.
Pau Gasol, the 13-year NBA veteran who inked a three-year, $22 million deal with the Chicago Bulls this offseason, has masterfully guided Spain to a 3-0 start—and left a pool of Chicagoans' drool in his wake.
The 34-year-old has been downright dominant since returning to his home country.
Through three games, he leads all scorers with 23.7 points per game on 65.1 percent shooting. He blitzed Iran for 33 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in Spain's tournament opener, and that wasn't even his strongest outing.
On Monday, he ripped apart a Brazilian frontcourt featuring NBA bigs Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter. Gasol poured in a game-high 26 points, hit three of five attempts from distance, corralled nine boards, swatted another three shots and added a pair of assists to his exceptional stat sheet.
With that said, Gasol's performance can't be captured in the production alone. That's saying quite a bit considering the way he has tested the constraints of the stat sheet.
It isn't the numbers themselves that should have Bulls fans buzzing. It's the way he has compiled them.
According to Lakers.com's Mike Trudell, these games have been like a window to the big man's best days:
If Bulls fans had any reservations about bringing him on board—even simple frustrations from falling just short in the Carmelo Anthony pursuit—those hesitations seemed justified.
Gasol's box scores suffered during two seasons largely spent as a miscast piece in ex-Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni's perimeter-oriented system. Over that time, Gasol set career lows in points per game (13.7), field-goal percentage (46.6), player efficiency rating (16.7) and win shares per 48 minutes (.076).
Throw in the fact that he lost 39 games to injury throughout that stretch, and Bulls Nation seemed to have reasons to wonder if its biggest offseason signing would be more notable for his name than his numbers.
Those concerns can now be put to rest. The eye test shows him to be as healthy and active as he's been in a long time. Basketball Insiders' Nate Duncan shares that view:
"The elder Gasol seems determined to lead his team to gold on its home turf," wrote NBA.com's John Schuhmann. "He looks healthy and spry and his game looks complete."
Granted, the international game fits Gasol like a glove. He ripped Team USA for 24 points, eight boards and seven assists in the 2012 Olympic gold-medal game, then saw his production plummet to personal worsts in the 2012-13 NBA campaign.
In other words, he isn't guaranteed to be a game-changer for the Bulls as often as he has been for Spain.
However, that's hardly a reason to stop those saliva streams. The Bulls didn't bring him on board to be their centerpiece—he is one of many pieces of what they hope will form a championship puzzle.
When reduced to a supporting role, his bag of tricks spills out like an embarrassment of riches.
"It wouldn’t be a surprise if Pau Gasol becomes the most versatile big man in Bulls history given the variety of skills he’s demonstrating in this tournament," Bulls.com's Sam Smith wrote.
While Father Time has limited Gasol's effectiveness at the defensive end—limitations that should be easily managed on a team led by Tom Thibodeau and anchored by Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson on the interior—he does just about everything at good-to-great levels at the opposite side.
Last season, he was one of only 10 players to average at least 17 points and nine boards per game. His average of 3.4 assists per game ranked third among that group, trailing only All-NBA selections Kevin Love (4.4) and Blake Griffin (3.9).
And, remember, that was a down year by Gasol's standards.
He's crafty in the low post and comfortable away from the basket. His 18.4 assist percentage ranks second among forward-centers over the past three seasons (minimum 50 games played).
If he, Noah and Rose can avoid the injury bug, the defensive-minded Bulls would have three of the league's top offensive catalysts.
With shooters (Mike Dunleavy, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott), slashers (Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell) and a relentless finisher (Gibson) around them, the Bulls should rapidly rise up the offensive efficiency rankings after finishing at No. 27 last season.
Chicago needs what Gasol can bring, and the relationship should be mutually beneficial for the big man.
The Bulls are well-equipped to handle his defensive deficiencies, and their offensive attack caters to someone with his skill.
"You think about Pau, him now being in the East, what he’ll be able to achieve with the way we play, the way we dump the ball in the post a lot. It could be great," Rose told Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this offseason.
Thibodeau blends his attack to his roster's strengths. He puts players in position to succeed.
Both Gibson (6.2) and Carlos Boozer (5.7) ranked among the NBA's top 16 in close touches per game (starting within 12 feet of the basket, not counting drives). They were one of only four pairs of teammates to do so.
When Noah served as the focal point, though, his opportunities started from farther out. The two-time All-Star received 9.3 elbow touches per game, the fifth-highest total in the league.
Gasol works well in both areas, and the Bulls will surely explore all the different wrinkles in his game.
For Gasol, though, this isn't about rediscovering his comfort zone or finding a system that better complements his game.
After suffering through one of the worst seasons in Lakers history, the two-time champion simply wants a chance to win again. As he said at his introductory press conference, he feels like he has one with Chicago:
Money obviously wasn't the priority here. I turned down bigger offers, and I prioritized being on a championship-caliber team and being in a position where I can hopefully put that team over the top with my game, as well. I felt that here, I was going to have that opportunity, and now it's just a matter of getting to work.
Judging by his torrid World Cup run, that work has already started.
Statistically, there hasn't been a better player through the midway point of the group stage. While that could prove problematic for Team USA going forward, it should have Bulls fans everywhere dreaming about their days ahead with the Spanish star.
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