Euro-Hammers: Marcin Gortat and Poland at EuroBasket 2015 | Wizards Blog Truth About

Euro-Hammers: Marcin Gortat and Poland at EuroBasket 2015

Updated: September 14, 2015

[Ed. Note: Bartosz Bielecki is TAI’s Polish correspondent. Bart covers all things Marcin Gortat from the mother country, including transcribing Gortat interviews with Polish media (which are classic, by the way). Bart also once wrote-in Paul Pierce on the Polish presidential ballot. Check out his previous work on TAI.

Today, Bart provides an overall look at Poland’s performance with Gortat at EuroBasket 2015. Poland went 3-2 in opening stage games but got eliminated by Spain this past Saturday in the knock-out stage.]

[Photo credit: Marta Wojtal for Poland's "Champion" magazine.]

[Photo credit: Marta Wojtal for Poland’s “Champion” magazine.]

Perhaps for the last time in his career, Marcin Gortat suited up for the Polish National Team for FIBA EuroBasket. But before we analyze his 2015 performance at the event (which started on Sept. 5 and ends on Sept. 20, taking place in France, Germany, Croatia, and Latvia), it’s important to drive down Poland’s road to the European tournament.

Gortat skipped last year’s Eurobasket Qualifier games, something Poland could easily afford, as Germany was the only serious rival at that stage. Even without the NBA’s only Pole, Poland managed to advance to this year’s Championships.

Due to NBA rules, Gortat joined the team late—on the first of August, the same day that Poland was to play its first test-game against the Czech Republic. Despite joining the team just a few hours before the game (Gortat rushed through half the country in his Porsche Panamera to make it on time, per his tweet), the center for the Wizards logged some minutes off the bench. It was possible without any practice because Poland coach Mike Taylor has worked with Gortat for a while and has implemented a system well-known by him—Poland’s playbook this summer is actually similar to that of the Washington Wizards. The plays even had the exact same names, so Gortat knew what the point guard was calling out.

What’s interesting is the fact that the Polish Hammer initially denied rumors about the Polish National Team implementing Washington’s system to help make him joining the team easier. The story with the Wizards’ playbook began in an unlikely place: coach Taylor shared this information directly with a journalist. Most intense followers of the Wizards could recognize some of the plays, anyway, especially the inbound ones. Coach Taylor was able to pull it all off thanks to the good relations with the Wizards’ staff. Last season he was a frequent guest at the Verizon Center. The relationship worked both ways, as the Wizards’ Senior VP of Basketball Operations, Tommy Sheppard, flew to Poland for the scrimmage against the Czech Republic, so he could also talk to Tomas Satoransky, a 2012 second round pick of Washington (32nd overall).

Poland’s pre-Eurobasket games finished with mixed results. After beating the Czech Rep. twice, Poland lost to Latvia, Slovenia, Germany, and Spain, but they were able to beat Turkey, Angola, Belgium, and a couple of less-demanding opponents like Iceland and Lebanon. My takeaway from those games was that there were too many plays run for Gortat. That string of friendly games was when the “Poland is addicted to Gortat” opinion was born amongst close observers of the team. The Polish Machine was getting better with every game, yet Poland wasn’t looking great overall with him on the court. Polish players treated Gortat as the Michael Jordan of the team and looked to deliver him the ball at all times, even when there were no passing lanes. What made things look even worse was when Gortat was given a day off, Poland beat Turkey and looked really good as a team. Mike Taylor admitted after the game that he rested his star to see how the team would do without him. The next night, when Gortat returned to the roster, Poland lost to a Dennis Schröder-less Germany team.

Poland officially opened this year’s EuroBasket with a game against Bosnia and Herzegovina on September 5 in Montpellier, France. Without its biggest stars—Mirza Teletovic, Jusuf Nurkic, and Nihad Djedovic—Bosnia was seen as Group A’s weakest team. Poland ended up winning the game, 68-64, but it surely wasn’t the performance everyone was looking for. Adam Waczyński, who plays in the Spanish league, led the Poles with 15 points.

The next day, Poland faced another team that couldn’t count on its biggest stars: Russia. Despite the absence of NBA players, Russia is still a very good team. After a dramatic finish (Gortat fouling a Russian player during another Russian player’s shot, resulting in a five-point play), Poland prevailed and won by a narrow margin, 82-79. Despite the mistake, which Gortat later called “one of the worst mistakes of [my] career,” it was Marcin’s best game of the tournament. The Polish Hammer recorded 18 points and six rebounds, but Waczyński once again topped all scorers with 23.

The next game on September 7 was a matchup between teams with perfect 2-0 records—Poland versus France, the reigning EuroBasket Champions. Gortat was matched against Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz for portions of the game. The young Frenchman stood up to Gortat, finishing lobs, blocking Gortat’s shots, and even dunking on him. The Polish Hammer got a chance for revenge, as he had a wide-open, buzzer-beating 3-point shot to send the game into overtime, but the ball bounced off the rim and Poland lost, 66-69. Gortat recorded his only tournament double-double in this game, adding 11 rebounds to his 10 points. Waczyński, who celebrated his son’s first birthday, was once again on fire, leading Poland with 18 points. Tony Parker led France with 16 points and Gobert scored eight points with seven rebounds.

Next up: Israel on September 9. Before the game, Poland already secured a spot in the elimination round of the Eurobasket. The game versus Israel was easily Poland’s worst game of the tournament. The Poles committed 23 turnovers and lost, 73-75. Waczyński and Damian Kulig each had 13 points, while Gortat added 11. Gal Mekel and Omri Casspi—Israelis who’ve spent time in the NBA—paced their team with 18 and 14 points respectively.

Finland was Poland’s last opponent in the group stage: not a star-loaded team, but a good and unselfish roster led by the coach Henrik Dettmann. Poland’s second unit’s performance was the story of the game, as the team caught fire when the starters, except Adam Waczyński, were subbed out. Poland ended up winning the game by 13 points and advanced to the Round of 16 full of hope. As EuroBasket watchers might expect, Waczyński scored 17 points to lead the team. Gortat was benched after a few minutes of the third quarter and did not return. After the game he admitted that he asked coach Taylor to keep the bench players on the court, as they were the better unit that game. Gortat and his backup, Przemek Karnowski, each scored 10 points.

Unfortunately, the EuroBasket elimination round matchup wasn’t very kind to Poland, as they had to face Spain—one of the best teams in the world, even with the absences of Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, and the injured Rudy Fernandez (Spain did, however, have Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic). It is safe to say Poland wasn’t a worse team than Spain through the first three quarters of the game, despite the relative no-show from Gortat. Unfortunately in the final quarter, Spain, led by the older Gasol (who finished with 30 points), built a decent lead and eliminated Poland by winning 80-66. And for the first time in the tourney, Poland’s Damian Kulig, not Waczyński, led the team in scoring with 10 points. The table below displays Gortat’s stats in each EuroBasket 2015 game:

eurobasket table off

How do we assess Gortat’s overall performance at EuroBasket 2015? Sorry to disappoint Wizards fans, but it wasn’t good. There were some rumors about Marcin being injured, but all were denied by team staff. Some journalists covering the action tried blaming Gortat’s poor performance on his age.

What needs to be stressed is that the Polish national team was a different squad at the EuroBasket tournament than it was during all those friendly test-games. Gortat wasn’t force-fed the ball as much once EuroBasket started. He was the third offensive option behind Waczyński and Ponitka. Was that a part of the game plan? Perhaps yes, but I just can’t shake the feeling that Gortat’s poor basketball form made him the third offensive option of the team. In one of his post-Eurobasket interviews Gortat went after one of the Poland’s most accomplished journalists, Łukasz Cegliński, who wrote a piece criticizing Gortat for not living up to expectations. The Machine responded by saying that it’s impossible to please Polish journalists—when he scores a lot, they write that he dominates the team offense too much, but when he shares the ball and tries to get everyone involved, they write about him not scoring enough.

There is definitely some truth to this. At times Gortat really looked like the team’s best passer. Marcin averaged 2.5 assists—the third-best average on the team. Despite running an offense partially based on Washington’s system, Gortat didn’t score a whole lot of points off pick-and-rolls. Gortat set picks and rolled to the basket often, but because of the FIBA rules (smaller court, no defensive three seconds), and the difference between the point-guards—John Wall and A.J. Slaughter—the pick-and-rolls weren’t as effective .

A.J. Slaughter, a naturalized American, had a sneaky good tournament, and even though he wasn’t regularly pulling up for jumpers, he was kind of in the shadow of Gortat, Ponitka, and Waczyński. His passes weren’t really that incisive, but he still managed to finish as the team’s third-best scorer (9.5 ppg) and the first assist man (5.0 apg). Despite being a good team player, Slaughter was rarely able to find the rolling Gortat—partially because of the lack of space for the pass and partially because Slaughter is more of a shooter than a passer.

Another factor was the chemistry. Although Slaughter was praised by everyone around the team, it is really hard to create a good pick-and-roll chemistry between two players in just six weeks. But even when Gortat received the pass and had enough space to finish, he had trouble making layups (something Wizards fans are familiar with), especially in the game versus Israel when he botched a couple of easy ones. Gortat actually provided more points when playing with his back to the basket. His moves in the paint were tough to stop for most of the European players. His hook shots were falling and one could only wish Poland had run a few more post-up plays for the Polish Hammer.

One last thing about the offense—and this might be nitpicking—but Gortat wasn’t dunking enough. At times he was left open running towards the rim and decided to lay it in instead of jamming it home and giving the team and the fans some extra energy. Additionally, he often chose the lay it up in the situations that he usually dunked the ball with his left hand during the NBA games. Hopefully this is more of a temporary style choice, and not a sign of his age.  

Then we’ve also got the defensive end, where you would normally expect Gortat to shine. Poland struggled to grab defensive rebounds and Gortat couldn’t make a game-changing difference. His 6.3 rebounds per game led the team and usually help him win individual rebounding matchups. But his opponents often outplayed him overall, averaging 13.3 points per game and shooting at 61 percent from the floor.

The table below shows the stats of Poland’s opposing starting centers that Gortat was matched up against:

eurobasket table def

Gortat openly admits that he doesn’t mesh well in FIBA basketball anymore, as he has to face opponents who operate further and further from the basket. “It’s not my kind of game,” Gortat said about having to guard players like D’Or Fischer of Israel, who was constantly left wide-open in midrange territory, or Pau Gasol, who made six of seven(!) 3s in the game against Poland.

Polish fans definitely expected more from their Hammer. Personally, I think Gortat can be cleared of many accusations, like the ones that he doesn’t score enough.

There is a “but,” however. Under all circumstances, Gortat should be the leader of the national team. He was not, at least not on the court. The Polish Machine’s best performance, plus/minus-wise, was just plus-1! In all six games summed up, Poland with Gortat on the court was 19-points worse team than their opponents. Translation: his influence on the team during the games was negative. Even before the only double-digit loss against Spain, Gortat had a plus/minus of minus-13, while Mateusz Ponitka was plus-32, Adam Waczyński was plus-26, and A.J. Slaughter was plus-22. When Przemek Karnowski took Gortat’s place on the court, Poland was plus-11 before the game against Spain, and plus-3 in the whole tournament.

What’s even worse is that in Gortat’s statistically best games of the tournament—versus Russia and France—Poland as a team was plus-1, but minus-11 with him on the court. With Karnowski, Poland was plus-2 against Russia and plus-8 against France. The two never played alongside each other. Karnowski, a center for the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the U.S., will enter the NBA draft next year and is currently projected as a second round pick. The young Pole still has a lot to learn, but thanks to continuous progress, Karnowski has a serious chance of becoming the fourth ever player from Poland to play in the NBA.

I cannot write a piece about Poland at EuroBasket without talking more about Poland’s two most shining players: Adam Waczyński and Mateusz Ponitka. The former was one of the best non-NBA players of the EuroBasket. The 26-year-old developed nicely in Polish league, which led him to sign a contract in the best league in Europe, the Spanish Liga Endesa. Waczyński averaged almost 16 points per game, which ranked him amongst the top 15 scorers of EuroBasket. He shot 46.4 percent from deep and 51.9 percent from the field, which made him the most efficient scorer on the team. He was also the leader and, according to Gortat’s conversation with a fan on Twitter, the Wizards have extended him an invite, although Gortat did not specify what kind of an invite. Having in mind that Waczyński is still under contract with the Spanish team Obradoiro, it might be a training camp invite for next year.

Ponitka, on the other hand, was the team’s fourth-best scorer (9.3 ppg), fourth-best rebounder (4.0 rpg), and second-best creator (3.7 apg). The 22-year-old is regarded as one of the best players at his age in the world. This year he went undrafted, despite some rumors about interest from the Detroit Pistons. It was said that Stan Van Gundy called Gortat to talk about Ponitka before the draft. EuroBasket 2015 was a breakout tournament for him and the path to the NBA stays open for the athletic shooting-guard.

Summing up, it was quite a good tournament for Team Poland, but rather disappointing run for the Wizards center. In no way was Gortat totally responsible for the elimination of Poland in the Round of 16, as Spain is top of the class and not even a career game from Gortat would have made the difference. Fans in D.C. can only hope that the Polish Hammer was saving the best for the NBA season and that after some rest, he will join the Wizards full of energy for the upcoming year. Despite announcing that this year would be his last with the national team after Poland got eliminated, Gortat said he’s still undecided whether he would play again for his country, but added that it’s the time to step down and leave room for Karnowski. It might mean we could see Gortat coming off the bench at the next EuroBasket in 2017. Otherwise, Gortat retired from the National team in the exact way you would expect: he tweeted to one of the complaining fans that he “shits on [the fan’s] opinions.”

Fans in Poland can, however, be and confident about the future, as the talented core of Waczyński, Ponitka, Slaughter, Kulig, and Karnowski should provide a lot of positive memories for years to come.


Bartosz Bielecki on Twitter
Bartosz Bielecki
Polish Correspondent at TAI
Bart is TAI’s Polish correspondent, covering all things Marcin Gortat from the mother country, including transcribing Gortat interviews with Polish media.