Before they play their first NBA game, a select group of rookies are sold as potential talents. Then the waiting game starts in earnest. Year one, show a spark. Year two, build on experience. Year three, break out. At some point, the waiting becomes tiresome, a burden, and so everyone just quits. Then it changes from “potential” to underachiever, to lazy, to wasn’t that good in the first place. That is the Rudy Gay NBA story.
When he came out of UConn, a 6-9 small forward who could score on the wing, Rudy Gay was written about as a future All-Star. His scouting report said, “An explosive offensive player. Gets a quarter of his offense from spot ups and a blend of fast breaks and post ups. Does most of his damage with the jumper. Prone to forcing shots over defenders, especially off the bounce.”
It is that last sentence that has defined the Rudy Gay career interpreted by those who waited three years for Gay to become a star, and when he didn’t they attached him to a set of characteristics: bad shot selection, doesn’t finish through traffic, freezes in late game situations, doesn’t want the ball late. It doesn’t matter if it is true. Confirmation theory requires that all the Rudy Gay history explains why he has disappointed in his NBA career.
In his book released last January (2017,) George Karl writes of his Sacramento Kings experience. Karl is a crusty, salty type. He recounts that the first thing he heard when he got into town was Rudy Gay telling him, “Welcome to Basketball Hell.” That phrase encapsulates the Rudy Gay bio. Sacramento was hell, according to him, and yet Gay freely signed a three year deal to stay. It’s what his critics despise most about him, this passive-aggressive way of being in and being out at the same time. He chose to stay and now he trashed the place he wanted to be in. Rudy Gay make up your mind.
But let’s start here. Rudy Gay was drafted by the Houston Rockets and then traded to Memphis for Shane Battier (Stromile Swift was dealt too). He was a lottery pick, #8. He debuted with a 21 point, 8 rebound night against the Knicks. The next game he scored 2 points. It was the familiar Rudy Gay feast and famine, rich and poor highlights. A week later, Gay had 23 points and 7 rebounds. The next night, he had 4 points. The next night he didn’t score. Even though he was a rookie, that perfectly describes the Rudy Gay dilemma. Nevertheless, he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, losing to Brandon Roy. He averaged 10.8 points and 4.5 rebounds.
Five years later, he was consistent scoring the ball. Not too many 2 point or 4 point nights. But there was a game where he played 25 minutes and had 1 point, having missed every single shot. Those were anomalies though. Rudy could score. He’d never be a 25 point scorer but he’d give you 16-19 per game. The problem with his offense was he didn’t like contact. He didn’t drive through traffic. It wasn’t mind over matter or willing wins. Rudy Gay didn’t get that deep into basketball psychosis. He was a finesse player. That year (2011-12) he averaged 19.0 points and 6.4 rebounds. He made his first appearance in the playoffs and put up similar numbers, 19 points and 6.6 rebounds, losing a tough 7 game series to the Clippers in the first round. In game 7, he played 40 minutes, had 19 points and 9 rebounds and only missed one free throw. He wasn’t the reason the Grizzlies lost.
Does it matter if he wasn’t the reason the Grizzlies lost?
Rudy Gay is always being blamed. Somehow it is always his fault because he never fit the parameters of what a small forward should be. He was a good scorer but not a great one. He was a good rebounder but not a great one. His three point shooting has never been remarkable. He had one year of 39.6%. Most of his career he has hovered around 33%-35%. Every athletic scorer isn’t going to be an All-Star.
But this, what is going on in San Antonio is not his fault. Rudy Gay gives what he can after an Achilles injury. He got out of Sac-town and took way less money ($8.5 mil) to do so. He is a role player, often pretty forgettable. He is not being trusted to save games. This is only his second playoff experience in his career and there is something really, really wrong about that. But it reminds me of the Rudy Gay joke. If you want your team to get better, trade Rudy Gay. It happened to Memphis when they traded him to Toronto. It happened to Toronto when he ended up in Sac town.
The problem with Rudy Gay is he is not what you want him to be, he is not what he was supposed to be, he is not the history of the NBA at that position: dominant, great, overwhelming. He has been a good player but not good enough.
In game one vs. the Warriors, it was the Rudy Gay experience. He gave the Rudy Gay stat line. 15 points. 6 rebounds. 2 assists. 2 steals. He took 12 shots in 22 minutes. He pretty much had the same stat line as LaMarcus Aldridge except- and give Gay credit- he outrebounded Aldridge by 4. He was the Spurs leading scorer. The Spurs got rolled.
When he was drafted, Rudy Gay was supposed to be Paul George. He was long and lean and athletic. When Paul George was drafted, he was supposed to be a project. It is the clearest evidence we have that careers and potential and what happens is never written in stone. Write it in pencil. You might want to erase it. Rudy Gay may erase the Spurs. He has an opt-out this summer.
But just being in the playoffs is a new Rudy Gay thing, regardless of how it is going to end.