Season Preview: Why Can't Rudy Gay be Danny Granger?



October 31st is the deadline for first-round picks from the Class of 2006 to sign contract extensions, with the alternative to play out this season and become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2010.

It looks like Rudy Gay may have to fight through this season without a contract extension.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • It looks like Rudy Gay may have to fight through this season without a contract extension.
Yesterday, Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge (5 years, $65 million) became only the third player in this draft class to sign an extension, following his teammate Brandon Roy (a max 5 year, $80 million) and top overall pick, Toronto's Andrea Bargnani (5 years, $65 million). And according to reports, it doesn't seem like any other significant Class of ’06 extensions are forthcoming. The best players from this class still looking for a deal: Boston's Rajon Rondo and the Grizzlies' Rudy Gay.'s Chad Ford reports that the Grizzlies' initial offers to Gay have been "underwhelming." If the Grizzlies don't ink Gay to an extension before the deadline, I'll have mixed feelings about it.

While Gay is a comparable player to Aldridge and Bargnani, I tend to think the Blazers and Raptors overpaid for players still shy of all-star caliber and don't think the Grizzlies would be wise to follow suit. The team will have leverage with Gay next summer as a restricted free agent in a climate where league-wide player salaries are likely to contract. I think there are two reasons to extend a rookie at the first opportunity: If the player is a clear-cut #1 guy (and you can certainly make the case that Roy fits that criteria) or if you can get what you feel is a good deal. Otherwise, wait it out. This is the mistake I thought the Grizzlies made with Pau Gasol, maxing him out at the first opportunity when he wasn’t quite that level of player.

So, in that context, if Gay is demanding the kind of speculative over-payment that Aldridge and Bargnani have gotten, I think the Grizzlies are probably wise to be cautious. But there are at least a couple of countervailing issues here: On a team trying to blend multiple shot-hungry players, there's a danger of Gay pressing too much in a contract year and this adding even more complication to already delicate on-court chemistry problems. Also, given the decisions the team made last summer, bringing in Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson on two- and one-year deals, respectively, there's reason to question whether owner Michael Heisley is even willing to give out a four- or five-year contract beyond rookie and mid-level deals.

So, it looks like this will be a really important season for Rudy Gay. I know a lot of people who follow the Grizzlies think he is what he is at this point — a good-not-great scorer who minimally impacts the rest of the game. But I don't think we've necessarily seen all that Gay can be.

Pacers small forward Danny Granger made The Leap at age 25, two years older than the similarly built, similarly skilled Rudy Gay will be this season.
  • Pacers small forward Danny Granger made "The Leap" at age 25, two years older than the similarly built, similarly skilled Rudy Gay will be this season.
Let's compare Gay to a somewhat similar player, Indiana's Danny Granger. Both are versatile, scoring-oriented 6'8" small forwards who can both shoot over the top of pretty much any defender and also get to the rim. (Granger is a little bit stronger, Gay a little more explosive.) Granger is three years older and has one more year of NBA experience than Gay, and last season he made The Leap: Granger finished fifth in the league in scoring (25.8 points per game), won the Most Improved Player award, made his first All-Star Game appearance, and was second to only Lebron James among small forwards in PER (the John Hollinger-created "total stat").

Is there reason to believe Gay could still make a similar leap? Is there reason to believe he can't?

Let's compare Granger's and Gay's production relative to age and league experience so far in some key categories. (Stats used: PER, PP40 [points per 40 minutes], RR [rebound rate], TS% [true shooting percentage], AR [assist ratio], TO [turnover rate], 3P% (three-point percentage), and FTA [free-throw attempts per game].) Hopefully this will be readable, as I don’t know how to make charts on the web:

Danny Granger

22 14.7 13.3 12.6 54.0 12.6 11.2 32 1.9
23 13.9 16.4 7.9 57.3 9.1 10.8 38 3.6
24 16.7 21.8 9.2 57.1 9.7 10.0 40 4.7
25 21.9 28.5 7.7 58.4 10.0 9.0 40 6.9

Rudy Gay

20 12.4 16.1 9.9 49.7 9.2 12.8 36 2.7
21 17.3 21.8 9.3 54.6 8.6 10.3 35 3.9
22 15.4 20.3 9.1 52.8 7.7 11.6 35 4.4

What you see there is that Gay has been as good or better than Granger at every age (Gay's disappointing age 22 season still better than Granger's age 22 season and Gay's age 21 season better than even Granger's age 24 season) and level of NBA experience (roughly comparable rookie seasons, Gay a better sophomore season, Granger a slightly better third season).

The hitch in this comparison is that Granger's career trajectory has been a relatively straight line up, while Gay had a troubling regression last season after a huge jump in his second year.

The question with Gay is whether that regression is a true indicator of his limits or just a fluke. And I tend to think there is a lot of fluke there.

Rudy Gays season: Back on track or flatlining?
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Rudy Gay's season: Back on track or flatlining?
I would argue that people who weren't watching the Grizzlies closely last season (and that's pretty much everybody) have underrated the degree of dysfunction on and off the court during the latter stages of Marc Iavaroni's tenure, a dysfunction that impacted the play (and, potentially, development) of Gay and Mike Conley more than anyone else. Gay was miscast as almost exclusively an isolation, perimeter scorer (and I worry Gay now thinks that's what he is) and all but gave up on the coach (a not-insignificant demerit) at midseason. So, I think there was something artificial in Gay's regression. At age 23, I think it's more likely to Gay rebounds and continues to improve on that promising sophomore season.

That said, there are a couple of problems with the Granger comparison. For one thing, while I think Gay has as much pure scoring ability, the team context will prevent him from taking such a dramatic scoring leap. Granger is the primary scoring threat on an uptempo team. Gay will be one of three or four primary scoring threats on what will likely be more of a mid-tempo team.

More importantly, Gay is plagued by questions about his make-up — his effort, his focus, his unselfishness — that have never been red flags for Granger. With his superior athleticism, Gay should be a major force defensively, but has been a huge disappointment in that area. And his low assist/high turnover numbers are another nagging problem.

While I think Gay is likely to blossom as a scoring threat, I'm not as confident in these other areas. Until he begins to play a more total game, Gay won't be worth the kind of contract extension other players from his draft class have gotten. Hopefully Gay will understand that, and go out this season and earn it.

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