At 5-16, the Grizzlies have been terrible. But astute fans knew that this season wouldn't be measured by wins and losses. More distressing is that the team's best bet for the future -- rookie Rudy Gay -- has gotten off to a similarly shaky start.
ESPN.com's John Hollinger, in labeling Gay "spectacular but not solid" last week, wrote in part: "I had high hopes for Gay, but so far I'm underwhelmed. The key is his shooting -- at 37.7 percent from the floor, he's been much less accurate than expected based on his results at Connecticut. He also hasn't done much to dispel the doubts about his motor, as he's tended to settle for jumpers rather than attacking the rim."
This is a fair, but partial, assessment: First, there are things you miss when you don't watch a player daily. Recently, Gay has shown small signs of progress that should pay bigger dividends over time. He's begun moving the ball better; after garnering only two assists in his first 10 pro games, Gay tallied 11 over his next 10. And after struggling to maintain control of the ball in the face of contact, Gay has done a better job protecting the ball.
The rookie has also shown great promise as a one-on-one defender, the one vast area of the game that Hollinger's phalanx of advanced stats don't measure, and is already a disruptive force, using his length and athleticism to produce deflections, steals, and blocks.
But, subtleties aside, there's no obscuring that Gay has struggled early on. His production is certainly not what fans were expecting.
Twenty games into a rookie season for a 20-year-old player is far too early to panic, but it's not too early to allow that Gay's projected stardom isn't assured.
One thing is certain though: There's also a team component to Gay's struggles.
Gay has been at his best this season when he's been able to get a steal on the defensive end and take off for the basket. The Grizzlies haven't had a wing player convert his own takeaways into fast-break buckets like this since James Posey's magical 2003-04 season, and Posey didn't finish these plays like Gay does. Last weekend, Gay's coast-to-coast steal and poster-worthy dunk on Clippers behemoth Chris Kamen was the clear highlight of an otherwise blasé game. This is the "spectacular" that Hollinger says obscures the lack of solidity in Gay's game, and he's right. But in a different team context, I suspect you'd see the spectacular a lot more often.
A quarter of the way into his rookie season, a couple of things about Gay's offensive game have become clear: He's much more comfortable and effective in the open floor than within a halfcourt offense. And he's much better at finishing plays than starting them. Gay's at his worst isolated 20 feet from the basket, where his suspect ball-handling ability and rookie tentativeness -- not, as Hollinger cites, his "motor" -- invariably leads to a pull-up jump shot instead of a foray to the rim.
To really thrive, Gay needs to be able to run, and he needs to play with a point guard who can get him the ball in the right spots. More than anyone except perhaps Grizzlies ticket buyers, Gay has been hurt by the devastating loss of fellow rookie point guard Kyle Lowry.
But Gay and anxious Grizzlies fans can take solace in this: Last winter, then-rookie Hakim Warrick looked just as lost and even more overmatched than Gay does right now. But after a year of seasoning, Warrick has been a breakout player in his second campaign. It might take Gay just as long, but it's a good bet that breakout will come.
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