The date is January 18, 2017. The bottom-feeding Sacramento Kings have welcomed the playoff-hopeful Indiana Pacers to town for an interconference showdown at the Golden 1 Center.
There are exactly 23.1 seconds left in the third quarter and the Kings hold a 10-point lead with All-Star DeMarcus Cousins resting on the bench. Garrett Temple swings the ball to an open Rudy Gay, Gay goes baseline as Myles Turner runs him off the three-point line, and Gay hits the hardwood without any contact.
Sacramento would go on to lose the contest 100-106, and the Kings would lose Rudy Gay for the rest of the season to a ruptured left Achilles.
Athletes to fully recover from major Achilles injuries are few and far between. The list of professional basketball players to recapture their pre-injury production is even smaller.
Remaining relevant upon return seemed to be a herculean task for the score-first forward. Not only would he need to complete months of grueling physical therapy, but he’d need to find a new NBA home willing to take a flyer on a 30-year-old in free agency.
Fortunately for the former UConn Husky, the San Antonio Spurs came calling and it looked like a match made in heaven from the beginning of contract negotiations. The Silver and Black were fresh off a Western Conference Finals appearance and they’d have the money, depth and staff to be patient with his rehabilitation process.
As we all know by now, year one wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for Rudy or the franchise. While Gay bolstered San Antonio’s second unit to start the season, he eventually fell victim to right heel bursitis as the Spurs began to deal with the Kawhi Leonard conundrum.
Rudy recovered two months later, Kawhi engaged in the world’s weirdest game of hide-and-seek and San Antonio suffered a first-round gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
The Spurs countered their disappointing 2017-2018 results with an uncharacteristically busy offseason. Several fresh faces joined the squad, one familiar friend signed up for a second go-round, a handful of regulars exited the organization and one euro-stepping legend retired.
A lot of chaos for a franchise renowned for consistency, but a perfect storm was brewing for Rudy Gay. Shots and minutes were available, now all he had to do was take advantage of these newfound opportunities.
Hop back into to the present, and that’s exactly what the 6-foot-8 combo forward has done.
Gay’s per game numbers don’t quite resemble the gaudy averages of his younger years, and that’s great news for the Spurs. No more empty statistics and lackluster defense.
He may not lead San Antonio in minutes played, points scored or shots attempted, but he’s without a doubt one of the most efficient scorers in the Alamo City if not the league.
Rudy Gay has transformed his game in SA. Lower volume, higher efficiency.
Here’s where he ranks among all forwards this season:
MPG: 27.1 (48th)
PPG: 14.2 (24th)
RPG: 6.5 (23rd)
APG: 2.6 (23rd)
FG%: 51.2% (12th)
FGA: 604 (37th)
3P%: 41.4% (8th)
3PA: 145 (66th)
FT%: 84.4% (9th)
— Noah Magaro-George ??? (@N_Magaro) March 8, 2019
So how did Rudy completely restructure his style of play? Well, it starts with an improved jumper and ends with better shot selection.
Analytics junkies advise against midrange attempts at all costs. Although Rudy Gay goes against the grain of modern basketball logic, he does so without sacrificing efficiency.
If that sounds a bit counterintuitive, it’s because it kind of is. However, take a look at the game tape and you’ll find Rudy’s patience and ability to dissect mismatches have allowed him to thrive despite his ostensibly poor fit in today’s pace and space environment.
Rudy Gay is not a perfect player by any measure, but he’s a far cry from the man who once banned stat-sheets from Toronto’s locker room. Plus, San Antonio is a better team when he looks to score the ball.
In fact, the Spurs are an eye-opening 35-15 when Gay scores 14 or more points. In case you missed it, that’s a better winning percentage than every team in the NBA this season with the exception of the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors.
Rudy occasionally succumbs to bad habits, but his experience along with his open arms approach to receiving guidance from head coach Gregg Popovich help him snap back to reality.
And that’s really the key to the veteran’s success in San Antonio. His willingness to listen and learn, even in year thirteen.
Rudy Gay is set to become a free agent this summer and the Spurs should look to retain him. They have virtually no luxury-tax worries after mutually parting with Pau Gasol, and Early Bird Rights should only make their job easier.