Rudy Gay is what you might call a memory tweaker. How long has it been now? Five years? Six years? The last time the Kings had a small forward with anything resembling this type of talent?
Peja Stojakovic was traded in 2006. Ron Artest signed elsewhere in the summer of 2008. While their styles varied wildly – Peja sliced opponents with jumpers and movement, Artest punished with his defense and versatility – Rick Adelman never had to wonder whose name to list at the three position.
Suddenly, neither does Kings coach Michael Malone. Gay is that guy. He will be that guy for the remainder of the season, and after that, who knows? His $19.3 million player option for next season would break a lot of banks. His contract was too steep for Memphis, and his stats and earnings apparently didn’t satisfy the new management group in Toronto.
But the NBA is a league littered with tales of redemption and rehabilitation, of players changing ZIP codes and thriving in different circumstances, some pertaining to personnel, others to economics. Chris Webber’s jersey hangs from the rafters. Doug Christie, Mike Bibby and Vlade Divac enjoyed their best seasons here. And it works both ways; Omri Casspi is a much happier man and a more consistent contributor with the Houston Rockets.
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So while Gay’s Sacramento story consists only of a few words on a page, his Kings debut was impressive, and his Kings home debut at Sleep Train Arena on Sunday was even better. He finished with 26 points, five rebounds, four steals, four assists. But what number to assign his talent? Or what his presence provides the Kings? Or what his potential could mean for the franchise in the short and long terms?
“I knew he was good,” Isaiah Thomas said after his club’s 106-91 victory, “but when he’s on your team, you really see all the things he can do out there besides score.”
With Gay in the lineup, the Kings can ditch the old two-step, the one where Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins are relied on almost exclusively to make plays and generate offense. Again, small sample sizes can be deceiving. But Thomas is right about one thing: Up close, the eight-year pro out of UConn has quite the portfolio.
Against a Rockets team that expects to contend for the Western Conference title, Gay converted jumpers, scored off quick dribble moves in the post, orchestrated fast breaks, threw a beauty of a no-look pass to Cousins, and once while being triple-teamed, dropped off a pass to a cutting Jason Thompson for a dunk. If style points were awarded, Gay would have scored big as well: At 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, he is fluid and sneaky fast. He glides to the basket for layups and scoop shots, often changing hands to avoid contact, and never appears rushed.
“I came into the league as a post player,” he said later, “a post player they threw on the wing. I worked on everything. My shooting got better. I worked on my handle. I’m making plays better than I was before.”
The knock on Gay, of course, is that he makes a ton of money and takes a ton of shots. But again, the league is not static. Time and place matter.
“Rudy has to be on a team where one or two positions don’t always require the ball because he’s a volume shooter,” Rockets assistant Kelvin Sampson said. “And DeMarcus leads the league in touches. Nobody gets the ball inside as much as he does. So you add another guy who gets up a lot of shots, that means somebody’s going to have to sacrifice.”
That perhaps looms as the Kings’ most daunting challenge. Are they ready to share? Are they ready to take back their home court? They still have issues, weaknesses, and Malone will continue carping about his favorite topic: defense. But the talent has leaped a few flights. The season – and the Kings – have definitely become more interesting.