For a guy who was born and raised halfway across the world in Poland and who joined the Washington Wizards just five days before the season opener following a trade from Phoenix, Marcin Gortat seems pretty comfortable in the nation’s capital.
The seventh-year center often likens his bearded look to that of former President Abraham Lincoln and throughout Washington’s playoff run, it was Gortat who often flexed and preened toward the Verizon Center crowd as if he was the scruffy face of the franchise.
But as Gortat recently reflected on his first season with the Wizards and looked ahead to his summer as an unrestricted free agent, he admits that, initially, the thought of playing in Washington was a scary one.
“Coming here to Washington, I had a lot of fear. I didn’t know how it was going to be,” Gortat said. “I was afraid of the city, I was afraid of the team. There was a lot of rumors about John (Wall) and what kind of player he is. And I’m not going to lie, wins help you to find yourself in your environment. I think that’s what happened with me. It took me time to find sweet spots in the city. Now I can say I like this city.”
Granted, there is one aspect of D.C. that still turns off Gortat.
“We can fix the roads a little better. All my rims has to be fixed now,” Gortat added after a brief pause. “I had to throw that out there. I hope somebody is listening.”
Though his construction plea is likely to fall on deaf ears, it’s safe to say Gortat will field his share of attention starting July 1, when he becomes one of eight free agents from the Wizards roster.
Aside from the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign when he played alongside All-Star point guard Steve Nash in Phoenix, Gortat put up the best numbers of his career with averages of 13.2 points. 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 81 games for the Wizards. Then, with the national spotlight on Washington for the first time in years, Gortat displayed his potential to dominate by dropping playoff career-highs of 31 points and 16 rebounds in a Game 5 win against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
True centers like Gortat, Houston’s Dwight Howard and Indiana’s Roy Hibbert are rare in the NBA’s current age of small ball, and with two young stars in John Wall and Bradley Beal already cemented in Washington’s backcourt along with Nene’s up-and-down health, an interior force like Gortat would serve as a key piece in distinguishing the Wizards among the Eastern Conference’s contenders.
Likewise, Gortat knows from his career years with Wall and Nash that having a point guard with strong court vision, an affinity for passing and a capability to run the high pick-and-roll are critical to his development. And should Gortat want to ascend into the conversation of elite big men, he will need to finish better at the rim, improve his court awareness and avoid the type of lapses that left him on the bench during critical stretches of the Wizards’ playoff run.
“There’s a lot of different things,” Gortat said when asked about the factors he’ll consider in free agency. “But number one thing is probably the point guard. I can’t play with blind point guards. I can’t do that. I have to play with a guy who’s a willing passer, who wants to get better, who wants to play pick and roll and John is probably on top of that list.”
The growing bond between Gortat and Wall was evident prior to his Game 5 breakout. It was Gortat who felt comfortable enough to break through Wall’s silent pregame approach and express his faith in his point guard despite his struggles against the Indiana defense.
The role of vocal leader isn’t one that Gortat initially felt comfortable accepting in his first few months as a Wizard. But when Nene went down with a knee injury in February, Gortat became the team’s leading big man, allowing him to blossom both on the court and unveil his equally big personality. During Nene’s 21-game absence, Gortat averaged 17 points and 10.6 rebounds to help lead Washington’s push toward its first playoff berth in six years.
“It took me a while to adjust,” Gortat said. “The second half of the season, when Nene was out, it really helped me to gain the confidence and just understand what kind of position I can have on this team. Since the all star game, I had the best numbers of my life. I definitely established myself as an inside player who can score. It was an important year for me.”
Gortat has made no secret of his desire to return to the Wizards, often speaking of next season as if he’ll again be in a red-white-and-blue uniform, energizing the team with the thunderous dunks that have earned him the nickname “Polish Hammer.”
It’s safe to say the interest is mutual, making Gortat’s signing more a question of can the Wizards re-sign the center considering the high value he’ll likely hold on the free-agent market. And should they bring him back, Gortat has no qualms with expressing the rising status of both him and the Wizards as NBA contenders.
“I love the team here,” said Gortat, who plans to skip competition with the Polish national team this summer to focus on free agency and rest. “We can have something special here for the next three, four, five years. We have a lot of talent on this team, a lot of young guys who can develop and become a superstar in this league.”