Sacramento Kings allowing Rudy Gay to play with lessened expectations

Rudy Gay warms up pregame against the Houston Rockets. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

In the summer of 2010, the Memphis Grizzlies made Rudy Gay the man. By signing him to a five-year, $82-million contract extension, the Grizzlies declared Gay the face and franchise of their organization.

These days, Gay is no longer the man for the Memphis Grizzlies nor is he the man for the Toronto Raptors, whom he spent a brief 41-game stint with this year and last. Instead three years and $45 million later, the 27-year-old forward finds himself in a completely different role with the Sacramento Kings.

“The reality is we didn’t give him that contract,” Kings head coach Michael Malone said recently of his starting small forward’s new situation.

Critical perception of the 27-year-old Baltimore native has changed plenty since he declared himself eligible for the NBA Draft seven summers ago. Nowadays, he’s often times tabbed by critics as a declining high usage, inefficient scorer with hero-ball tendencies. But there once was a time where the perception of Gay was the complete opposite.

“Gay is a very good teammate, showing many of the intangibles that lead you to believe he has what it takes to reach his high ceiling,” Draft Express said of the veteran small forward before he was selected eight overall by the Houston Rockets in 2006. “He is extremely unselfish and an excellent passer, using his height to see the floor and a good understanding of how to put his teammates…in a position to score, either on the perimeter or inside the paint. He doesn’t mind making the extra pass, almost to a fault at times.”

That assessment sounds more like the player the Kings have seen in the last five games, doesn’t it?

Since his arrival in Sacramento, Gay has been everything the franchise has wanted and needed from the wing. He’s continued to score at a high level, averaging 18 points per contest, but has done so in an efficient manner that’s probably left his statistical critics scratching their heads. Gay has taken fewer shots (12.8 per game to be exact) while shooting better than 53.1 percent from the field. That’s a far cry from the career-low 38.8 percent and career-high 19 attempts per game he was shooting in Toronto this season.

Could it be the change of scenery? Perhaps. But by all accounts, Gay had hoped to make things work with the Raptors. Like his situation in Memphis, the 27-year-old forward wasn’t looking for way out from his former team.

Maybe Gay’s early success with the Kings has more to do with his role than anything else. Unlike his previous two stops, Gay is not being asked to put Sacramento on his shoulders and carry the load as the Kings’ No. 1 option. Rather, any conversation about the Kings’ future success and failure currently start and end with big man DeMarcus Cousins.

“He’s gonna be a guy that we go to at times,” Malone said of the 27-year-old small forward. “But we’re still going to make sure that we go to DeMarcus… Because the great thing about DeMarcus is every night lately, he’s getting us into the bonus so early and we’re getting to the foul line and he’s setting the tone and we’re dominating the paint. That all starts and ends with DeMarcus and then everybody else will get it from there. But we’re gonna get Rudy his touches and put him in position to have success out there.”

When it comes to playing with a dominant low-post presence like Cousins, Gay has experience on his side. The veteran small forward has three-and-a-half seasons under his belt of playing with former All-Stars Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

Gay sees similarities between Cousins and Randolph, his ex-Grizzlies teammate. Gay believes the 23-year-old center has a chance to be “as effective, if not more” than the 32-year-old power forward. Through 24 games, Cousins is averaging career-highs in points (22.8 per contest) and field-goal percentage (50.1 percent), while grabbing 10.8 rebounds a night.

“It’s always good to have a good center,” Gay said. “You can have your guards around you, but it’s always good to have a good center. People are gonna double him and it just makes it easier on me I guess.”

So three years and $45 million later, Gay finds himself in Sacramento. Unlike his six-and-half-season tenure in Memphis and his brief stay in Toronto, Gay is no longer the man and doesn’t have to be here in the capital city.

“I just basically wanted to do and grow and be the best player that I could possibly be,” Gay said of his expectations for himself following his original max extension with the Grizzlies. “And I feel like I have a lot more to grow and I’ma continue to practice and work hard at it.”

With a lighter load to carry and lower expectations to meet, maybe Gay can finally play like the unselfish player he was once touted to be.

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About: Jonathan Santiago

Jonathan Santiago serves Cowbell Kingdom as senior editor specializing in writing, podcasting and video production. He also handles the majority of CK’s day-to-day beat coverage of the Kings.