There is myth making the rounds in the media and on NBA fan bulletin boards that Rudy Gay is a volume scorer, someone that can’t shoot straight and is one of the most inefficient players in the NBA. A myth that is more based on Gay’s salary and the statistics of one tumultuous season than facts or reason can support. What Gay did last year and the max contract the Grizzlies signed him to in July 2010 is how Gay is most often being evaluated this summer. However, Steve von Horn in SB Nation quoted Rudy Gay’s former Head Coach Lionel Hollins about what Gay meant to the Memphis Grizzlies just before he was traded and in hindsight what Gay is bringing to Toronto.
“There are a lot of expectations that go with that (max) contract,” Hollins said. “But as I’ve told all the players that sign a new contract, ‘you are still the same player.’ You can’t knock players for getting contracts because they have leverage. That’s what negotiating is all about.
“The reality is that we have a very versatile small forward that is 6’9. There aren’t many guys out there like that. He can post up, shoot from the perimeter [and] he can attack the basket. He defends LeBron James, he defends Kevin Durant and all these guys that are tall and strong, and quick and athletic. We don’t have another player on our roster with that versatility and most teams don’t. That’s the bottom line.”
Rudy Gay has averaged 45 percent from the field and has a career true shooting percentage of 52.5 over his 7 NBA seasons. While those are not exceptional shooting percentages, they are not in the chucker category either and as Coach Hollins has described, Gay can score from anywhere on the court and in a variety of ways. Gay is one of those rare players a team can give the ball to in pressure situations and let him create.
Gay can also have an impact at the other end of the court. In his second game with Toronto playing against Miami, Gay kept pace with LeBron James on a drive from the three-point line into the paint and blocked James’ layup attempt without fouling. That kind of timing and athleticism on defense is rare. Over his career, Gay has averaged 5.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks. Gay can do more than just score.
When Gay was drafted in 2006, Memphis was a very different team. The Grizzlies won 22, 22, and 24 games during his first three seasons, but with the arrival of Marc Gasol in 2008, Coach Hollins later that season and Zach Randolph in the summer of 2009, things were about to get a lot better. Randolph was an All-Star in his first season with Memphis and Gasol developed quickly as a strong post presence, so the 6’ 9 Gay found the paint a lot more crowded than he was used to. However, he adapted quickly and Gay had the best season of his career going in 2010-2011 when it was cut short by a shoulder separation injury.
“Sometimes, circumstances dictate the kinds of shots you get,” Hollins said. “When we have Marc and Zach on the inside, it’s hard to find a spot to put them when we want to post Rudy more. Rudy’s adjusted to that from day one.”
Gay’s personal success that season was largely ignored and even downplayed after the Grizzlies unexpected run in the Conference semi-finals. The next season was a transition year because of the lockout and the team was also in the process of being sold. Gay’s personal stats were down slightly, but the team didn’t seem to be the same despite a solid regular season record. New majority owner Robert Pera took over at the start of last season and things were about to change.
Gay was inconsistent at the start of last season and by the time he left Memphis; his shooting percentages were at a career low. Maybe it was the back spasms reported in early December that derailed his season or the hiring of the advanced statistics prophet John Hollinger to advise the team, but hearing his name in trade rumors with the Bobcats, Wizards, Cavaliers, Raptors, Celtics, Timberwolves, Kings, Warriors and Suns probably had some effect, especially since those rumors seemed to be coming out of Memphis. The louder the rumors got, the worse Gay seemed to play, right up until he was traded to Toronto. Hollins, however, made it clear how he felt about too much reliance on statistics.
“We get hung up on statistics a little too much, and I think that’s a bad trait all over the league that’s taken place,” Hollins said. “And the media has done it because it’s easy to go to the stats to make a point or to build up a player or tear down a player. When it comes down to big shots, there’s only a few guys that will take those shots, want to take those shots, have the bravery and courage to take them because there’s a lot of criticism when you miss a shot. You have to be mentally tough and courageous to take those shots at the end of the game. Analytics has a place. It can’t be the be all end all. I’m still trying to figure out when the Oakland Athletics won a championship with all the analytics they have. It takes talent.”
The Grizzlies missed Gay when they were swept in the Western Conference Finals at the end of May.
Toronto had 16 wins and 30 losses when Gay arrived and went 18-18 the rest of the way. For a while it looked like Gay might actually help Toronto make the playoffs, but the team fell 4 games short. A sore arm at the end of February and then back spasms at the beginning of March that turned into a stiff sore back for most of the month conspired against Gay leading the Raptors all the way back. However, despite the setbacks, Gay was playing better than he had in Memphis. In April, Gay shot 48.2 percent from the field and hit half of his 38 three-point attempts.
The big change for Gay in Toronto is the offense once again runs through him. Gay is the Raptors go-to-guy and the team’s offense will be built around him this season. Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri wants to see what his team can do with Gay as their centerpiece and the small forward has his own incentive for performing at a high level. Gay has a player option available at the end of this season.
Gay, who has refused to wear contact lens or glasses despite needing them for distance vision, finally had corrective eye surgery this summer. Corrective eye surgery after years of needing glasses is an enlightening experience. Gay will head into this season seeing the entire world – but more importantly the rim – clearly for the first time. At Head Coach Dwane Casey’s insistence, Gay also added 10-15 good pounds to better enable him to take the physical beating he’ll experience as the Raptors number one option. The difference in how the Raptors played when Gay was feeling good compared to when he was hurting was stark last season. Casey needs a healthy Gay to win games.
Gay will show up at Raptors training camp motivated with his vision corrected and in good shape. Last season’s trade rumors and sore back will be behind him. The offense will run through him and as such, expectations for this season should be high once again. Gay averaged close to 20 points on 47.1 percent shooting and 39.6 percent from three-point range, 6.2 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks in 2010-2011. This season, he is going to be given every opportunity to match or exceed that production. The myth Gay can’t shoot straight is not supported by the numbers over his career and this summer, he has taken the steps necessary to play better than his best so far.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors