By Joshua Coleman
Year after year since they arrived in Memphis, the Grizzlies have run out a ragtag group to man the pivot. Other than Lorenzen Wright, who performed admirably the majority of his time in his hometown, the other players have either been undersized (Stromile Swift, Alexander Johnson, Lawrence Roberts, Andre Brown) or undertalented (Jake Tsakalidis, Ike Austin, Cezary Trybanski) or both (Mike Batiste). So the fact that they will be trotting out not one, not two, but three legitimate 7-footers is practically a miracle of epic proportions. The additional thought that at least two of them are worthy rotational players and the third is a worthwhile project makes me all tingly inside.
The primary job of the center in the modern NBA is that of a rebounder and defensive presence. Other than the players of Yao Ming and Al Jefferson's offensive skill or Amare Stoudemire and Dwight Howard's athletic prowess, centers just aren't looked to as scorers nowadays. The Sameuel Dalembert's, Tyson Chandler's and Andrew Bogut's are the norm for the position now. When looking at Darko Milicic, Marc Gasol and Hamed Haddadi, it seems apparent that they favor the latter grouping more than the former. All three are known for their hard-nosed defense, physicality in the paint and solid rebounding. Let's take a closer look at each of them.
Darko Milicic - As I said previously when talking about the Power Forwards, Darko isn't likely to ever reach the expectations that certain people had for him when he was drafted #2 overall in 2003, but that doesn't mean that he cannot be a quality NBA starter. After all, he's only 23 years old and has limited mileage on him considering that he barely played while in Detroit for two and a half seasons. Darko's strengths are in his positional defense and shot-blocking, although he did exhibit a deft passing touch last year from the high and low post positions. With the thumb on his shooting hand finally healed, we might get to see more of the player that posted 6 games of double-digit scoring in his first 15 appearances as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies. If he winds up splitting time between the PF and C positions, his offense will definitely need to be raised to a new level. The bigger question for The Dark One is where his confidence level is at, since that has been the biggest road block to greater success in his career. If he ever gets out of his own head, the rest of the league should be very worried.
Marc Gasol - Pau's little brother is no stranger to Memphis. After his performance in the Olympics, he's probably not a stranger to the rest of the NBA now either. If Grizzlies fans had any doubt, Marc proved that he wasn't his much maligned sibling by putting Chris Bosh squarely on his backside when Spain met Team USA. The reigning MVP of the ACB League in Spain comes across the pond with a chip on his shoulder after not garnering a scholarship offer from any big name schools after graduating high school here in Memphis. While he doesn't have the offensive skillset of Pau, he has already displayed that he is much tougher and more physical in the paint, along with growing far superior facial hair, which is important to me since I'm also bearded on occasion. If what he has shown in Spain translates well to the NBA, then Gasol could find himself with a substantial amount of playing time this year.
Hamed Haddadi - The final member of the international trio manning the pivot is the Iranian import who recently got clearance to enter the United States. Although there might be a few communication issues that have to be overcome (such as GM Chris Wallace accidentally giving Haddadi the equivalent of "the bird" by displaying a thumbs up in practice) and he should definitely be classified as a project, but as the saying goes, 7-footers don't grow on trees. He displayed plenty of raw ability in the Olympics, leading all players in rebounding and shot-blocking. His new teammates have been very complimentary of his skill level over the past week, giving hope that he might be able to contribute as soon as this season if the necessity should arise.
(And you thought that I couldn't do that without a camel joke.)
CONCLUSION: While the Grizzlies undoubtedly have more potential than ever before at the center position, it is anyone's guess how well the two newest additions will transition to the NBA and whether or not Darko will finally "get it". If the Grizzlies manage to get an average of 15-17 ppg, 13-15 rpg and 3-4 bpg each and every night from their centers, then it will take a lot of pressure off the rest of the team who will have the knowledge that they have a capable shot-blocker behind them on defense, as well as a solid rebounder and space eater. The Grizzlies will finally have some intimidators in the paint this season -- something that is long overdue.