Mid-Season Player Notes: Rudy Gay

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Contrary to conventional wisdom, Rudy Gay has been getting to the rim more often this season.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Contrary to conventional wisdom, Rudy Gay has been getting to the rim more often this season.
Much of the focus early this season has been on the return of small forward Rudy Gay from last spring's season-ending shoulder surgery. And while some fans are disappointed that Gay hasn't been more dynamic in the absence of Zach Randolph, he probably deserves a little more credit for maintaining his career norms while coming off his first major injury and a long layoff and into a lockout compressed season — in the context of which scoring and shooting are down league-wide.

Gay had a couple of noticeably bad games in January — including a deplorable one-point performance in a home game with the Spurs — but settled into a more consistent groove in February that had him trending up heading into the break.

Given his individual circumstances and the shooting decline across the league, Gay's decline from 47% shooting last season to 45% so far this season isn't that big a concern. His drop from 82% from the free-throw line to 72% is a little more troubling, but like other facets of his game seems to be correcting itself: He shot 68% from the line in January, 80% in February.

Though this isn't the perception, Gay's been going to the rim more (27% of his attempts at the rim last season, 35% this season) and taking few jumpers overall (56% of his attempts from the perimeter last season, 46% this season). That his shooting percentage has still declined despite taking fewer jumpers is because Gay's shooting percentages are down from everywhere but non-corner threes (where he's hit 43% this season). In particular, Gay has struggled on shots in the lane, where he's hitting only 35% after connecting on 44% last season.

But to put Gay's offensive performance — where it is and where it needs to be — into more context, let's stack him up against other high-level small forwards. (I'm using what I think is pretty clearly the league's dozen best starters at the position this season.)

Let's start with two stats related to three-point shooting:

Three-Point Shooting Percentage:
Nicholas Batum - 42%
Lebron James - 41%
Luol Deng - 41%
Rudy Gay - 39%
Paul Pierce - 37%
Kevin Durant - 37%
Andre Iguodala - 37%
Danny Granger - 35%
Shawn Marion - 32%
Danilo Gallinari - 31%
Carmelo Anthony - 31%
Gerald Wallace - 29%

Percentage of Field-Goal Attempts from Three-Point Range:
Nicholas Batum - 42%
Danilo Gallinari - 38%
Danny Granger — 35%
Paul Pierce - 31%
Andre Iguodala - 28%
Kevin Durant - 24%
Luol Deng - 24%
Gerald Wallace - 23%
Carmelo Anthony - 20%
Rudy Gay - 12%
Lebron James - 11%
Shawn Marion — 11%

What does this juxtaposition suggest? That Rudy Gay is too good a three-point shooter to take so few three-pointers. The only player on the list who shoots from distance as well as Gay but takes less advantage of it is Lebron James (who took 19% of his attempts from three-point range last season). And James is, of course, a sui generis physical marvel rather than a run-of-the-mill elite athlete. I'd argue that the proper balance for Gay would be to bump three-point attempts up into the mid-twenties as a percentage of his arsenal, in the same range as Deng, Durant, and Iguodala, and to do so at the expense of mid-range jumpers that, this season, make up 34% of his arsenal. Gay is a good mid-range shooter, hitting 37% from that range this season and 41% last season, but a 34-to-12 mid-range-to-three-pointer ratio is not the best use of his talents. Evening that ratio out would make Gay a more efficient scorer and make the Grizzlies' offense more dynamic.

Now, a couple of other offensive areas:

Free-Throw Attempts Per Game:
Lebron James — 8.8
Kevin Durant — 7.2
Carmelo Anthony — 6.9
Danilo Gallinari — 5.8
Paul Pierce — 5.7
Danny Granger — 5.2
Gerald Wallace — 3.9
Rudy Gay — 3.8
Andre Iguodala — 3.7
Nicholas Batum — 3.2
Luol Deng — 3.1
Shawn Marion — 1.9

Gay is the league's 14th-leading scorer at 18.9 points per game, but has taken the 7th most field-goal attempts in the league this season. Pushing a few more of those mid-range attempts back a few feet in pursuit of the extra point is one component of increasing his efficiency. But the other would be getting to the line more.

I don't think its reasonable to expect Gay to get into the James-Durant-Anthony tier in this regard. Those are arguably three of the four or five most talented pure scorers in the NBA and all — pending the Jeremy Linn effect — dominate the ball and their team's offense more than Gay. But I do think it's reasonable to target that second tier of Gallinari-Pierce-Granger and want Gay to push his free-throw attempts up in the five range.

Rudy Gay, even now, is, I think, a better all-around basketball player than Danny Granger, but Granger, with more threes and free throws, deploys his offense with better balance. If Gay can apply his superior skill and talent to a similar offensive menu, he would solidify himself as a Top 5 player at the position. And, with Randolph returning, those shifts would allow Gay to maintain a similar scoring average on fewer field-goal attempts.

Assists Per Game:
Lebron James — 6.8
Andre Iguodala — 5.3
Paul Pierce — 5.3
Carmelo Anthony — 4.1
Kevin Durant — 3.4
Luol Deng — 3.3
Gerald Wallace — 2.7
Danilo Gallinari — 2.6
Rudy Gay — 2.3
Shawn Marion — 2.1
Danny Granger — 1.8
Nicholas Batum — 1.2

One recipe for more efficiency: Fewer contested mid-range jumpers. More open threes.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • One recipe for more efficiency: Fewer contested mid-range jumpers. More open threes.
James here, as in so many areas, is a special case. And given that Gay shares the court with a true point guard, one of the league's very best play-making centers, and — soon — a post scorer who's generally a higher usage player, targeting that Pierce-Iguodala second tier is probably not reasonable. But pushing his assists into the 3-4 range with Deng/Durant/Anthony is a worthy goal.

Also potentially instructive are two matched sets of per-game averages:

Career averages: 17.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 4 free-throw attempts, .9 blocks
Season averages: 18.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 3.8 free-throw attempts, .8 blocks

These are pretty similar, suggesting Gay's current numbers represent something or a norm or plateau. But I wonder about the averages shown in a couple of smaller sets of games:

Final 10 games before last season's injury: 19.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 4.4 free-throw attempts, 1.2 blocks
Final five games before the All-Star break: 20.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 6.2 free-throw attempts, 1.4 blocks

Look, in particular, at the assists, free-throw attempts, and blocks in that second set. My sense watching Gay last season was that he had found a comfort zone at the time of his injury — playing a more dynamic and balanced all-around game. Given that he was much more consistent in February than in January and that his production heading into the break was trending back toward where he was last season before the injury, it seems possible that these smaller sets represent a truer version of what Gay is now and that it just took him a month or so coming back from the injury and lay-off to get back to that level.

Time will tell. Certainly whether those averages heading into the break are a trend or just a blip will have a lot to do with how much upside this team will really have.

Despite under-performing relative to his abilities at the offensive end for most of the half — the 37% mid-range shooting is Gay's lowest since his rookie season and still around the league average — the Grizzlies have, unsurprisingly, been much, much better offensively when he's been on the floor. Disappointingly, the Grizzlies' have been a little worse defensively this season with Gay, a reversal of last season, when Gay graded out positively.

Gay is still a frequently dynamic defender: Third among small forwards in steals per game (behind only Andre Iguodala and Lebron James) and fourth in blocks per game. Lebron James is the only other small forward in the top five at the position in both areas. And, in Randolph's absence, he's increased his rebound rate at both ends. But he needs to be a more consistently active defender. He was getting there last season before he went down. He needs to get back.

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