By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In many ways, Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol can be considered the 'Renaissance man' of the NBA.
Not only is he one of the most eloquent and cerebral players in the league, he is also one of the most skilled. For a seven-footer, the long-haired Spaniard from Barcelona has a deft touch and surprisingly agile movement.
Since joining the Lakers from the Memphis Grizzlies in February 2008, he has dovetailed superbly with All-Star guard Kobe Bryant and it is no coincidence Los Angeles have reached three consecutive NBA Finals in that time.
In Thursday's Game One of the 2010 NBA Finals, Gasol showcased all his talents against the Boston Celtics, mixing finesse with a strong physical presence to tally 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocked shots.
"I thought he was the best player on the floor," Celtics coach Doc Rivers told reporters after his team had been overpowered 102-89 at Staples Center. "He made terrific plays, terrific passes and shot when he should shoot."
"I think I've grown," the 29-year-old said during a Lakers practice session on Friday. "I understand better what is required out there and how hard you have to play, how much you have to work in order to be able to play like that.
"I had to work mentally and physically throughout these two years just to be the kind of player I am today," added Gasol, whose mother is a physician and father a hospital administrator.
The end result is a near-ambidextrous forward who is widely admired by his team mates for his ability to score from both the inside and mid-range, to conjure inch-perfect passes and to defend with the best.
"He's incredible," said Lakers forward Lamar Odom. "His hand-eye coordination is remarkable for someone that size. He never drops the ball.
"He's great at catching and delivering really quick, keeping the basketball high. He's one of the best players I've ever played with."
Bryant, a 12-times All-Star who owns four NBA Championship rings, believes the Spaniard's versatility has been the most significant factor in their burgeoning alliance.
"It's important for me at this stage in my career to have bigs who can shoot the ball and also post the ball because then they can stretch the floor and I can penetrate," Bryant said.
"He does a terrific job defensively for us and offensively his capabilities are limitless. He's a dominant post-up player, extremely versatile and makes great decisions."
Gasol, who is fluent in Catalan, Spanish and English, aspired to be a doctor and spent a year at the University of Barcelona's medical school until he was lured away by professional basketball. The medical world's loss has certainly been the Lakers' gain.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)