Pau Gasol: “I feel better than what I expected”

Time slowly passed as teammates and coaches eventually left the Lakers’ practice facility.

But Pau Gasol stayed longer, spending more than an hour in the training room following Sunday’s practice in hopes of ensuring a healthy 2013-14 season.

A cause for concern? Hardly.

Gasol finished the Lakers’ training camp as a huge bright spot, averaging a team-leading 13.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists through eight preseason games as the team’s focal point in the post. A season removed from missing a combined 33 games because of a variety of ailments in his knees and right foot, Gasol provided a positive assessment on his health.

“I feel better than what I expected,” Gasol said. “I’m really happy with how I feel right now.”

Dwight Howard’s departure to the offseason with the Houston Rockets set up Gasol to have more of a post presence. But his added effectiveness go beyond that.

“I get more comfortable within the offense because I’m in better rhythm, getting better looks and I can pick and choose my shots and decisions,” Gasol said. “Everything flows more naturally. It’s not forced.”

That was hardly the case last season.

Gasol played a facilitating role along the elbows and the perimeter because of Howard’s post limitations. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni has conceded he also featured Howard in a more prominent role in hopes of enticing him to stay. D’Antoni also pinned Gasol as a reserve and sat him for parts of the fourth quarter in favor of Earl Clark because of the coach’s preference for a smaller and quicker lineup.

It also doesn’t help that Gasol suffered a variety of ailments that made him sit 33 games, including knee tendinitis (eight games), plantar fascia in his right foot (20 games) and a concussion (five games). Combine all those ingredients, and Gasol averaged a career-low 13.7 points on 46.6 percent shooting.

“When I came in, he was hurt and he had struggled with his knees all year,” D’Antoni said. “He never got a great training regiment in there to be able to overcome sitting out for a long time. He physically feels better. He knows a lot of stuff is going through him. He’s not the afterthought. He’s the main guy out there.”

And as a result, Gasol feels more empowered in leading the Lakers in the same way that once brought them two consecutive NBA championships.

“Psychologically, nothing against Dwight, but psychologically you know the ball is coming through you,” D’Antoni said. “You also don’t know, Am I the center, Am I this or am I that?’ It was a tough spot he was put in last year. But I think the combo of him knowing how important he is and feeling good makes him a great player. He is a great player.”

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