SB Nation

James Herbert | October 21, 2013

Reviving Rudy

It's been a tumultuous year for Rudy Gay, but instead of dwelling on it, he's focused on leading another young team to the playoffs

Rudy Gay remembers what it was like. Heading into his fifth season with the Memphis Grizzlies at the age of 24, he'd yet to taste the postseason and had barely been seen on national television. Gay and the Grizzlies made a 16-win leap the year before, but still finished 10 games out of the playoffs.

After signing a maximum contract extension, he and the team knew exactly what they needed to accomplish. He could feel it.

"It was like one of those vibes where we're not taking no for an answer," Gay says in an interview with SB Nation after a recent practice at the Air Canada Centre. "We have to get there. Every step we take, every time we're in the gym, we're thinking about getting to that spot."

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If you'd never seen him play, you'd guess he was a power forward.

That fifth season was the best year of Gay's career until it was stopped short by a serious shoulder injury with two months left in the regular season. He had reconstructive surgery, then cheered on his No. 8-seeded teammates as they upset the No. 1-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs without him.

A few months ago, Gay again could only watch as Memphis made history. In the middle of their best season since the franchise's inception, the Grizzlies traded him to the Toronto Raptors. While the Raptors played their final game in mid-April, Memphis finished 56-26 and made the conference finals for the first time.

Gay tuned in on TV and rooted for the team with which he'd spent his first six and a half seasons. As others debated whether the Grizzlies were better without him, he talked to his former teammates, he encouraged them. No media storyline would wipe out what was built in Memphis.

"I'm happy for the success they had last year," Gay says.

Now heading into his first full season in Toronto, Gay's aiming to establish the environment necessary for the Raptors to grow into a playoff team like the Grizzlies did.

"This team hasn't been there in a while, and we're striving for it," Gay says. "The city's striving for it."

You only need to glance at Gay to see he's physically stronger than he's ever been. In the offseason, he and trainer Dustin Gray spent the majority of their summer in a Baltimore gym. Aside from a few days in Las Vegas with his Toronto teammates, Gay was without Gray only when he went to Italy for an NBA-sanctioned trip in July and took 10 days off after his wedding in August. The result: If you'd never seen him play, you'd guess he was a power forward.

Gay also worked on his stroke after shooting a career-low 41.6 percent from the field last season. His trainer wanted him to make small adjustments, to make it more compact.

In June, Gay just got in all the reps he could. The next month, he went at a quicker pace, shooting off pindowns and out of pick and rolls. The sessions in August were as game-like as possible, with Gay going against a live defender and playing through contact. Gray tracked the makes and misses, seeing his client become more consistent.

When going over game tape, Gray's points of emphasis with Gay are shot selection, playmaking and being engaged on defense. Gay takes an online lashing almost every time he launches a low-percentage jump shot, but sometimes he'll have to shoot those with confidence.

The key is not to settle. Ideally, he'll try to get to one of his best spots instead or use his added bulk to create contact and draw fouls, an improvement that has been noticeable in the preseason. If there's a sustained jump in Gay's free throw rate, you can trace it back to the weight room and film sessions studying Kobe Bryant, James Harden and Kevin Durant.

"When you want to be great, you have to practice that way, so I did this past summer."

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"I pressed a little harder this year," Gay says. "When you want to be great, you have to practice that way, so I did this past summer."

All of that fine-tuning followed a tumultuous year on and off the court. Gay struggled early on in Memphis last season, playing in a slow and stagnant offense meant to maximize its potent post play.

Trade rumors never relented and took their toll mentally. He spent Christmas with his ailing grandmother, who passed away in early January. They were extremely close; as a young man, he and his three sisters spent time living with their grandparents after their parents' divorce.

Then came the first trade of his career and the ensuing referendum over his true value on the floor. While he had ups and downs after arriving in Toronto, his efficiency numbers made him a whipping boy for the growing subset of statistically minded NBA observers.

"You're nothing without adversity," Gay says. "I've been through a lot this past year, but if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger. It's just people on the outside really don't understand that we're human, too, we actually go through things. But to a fault, you know, we kind of keep it inside. We don't talk about it as much."

Now 27 years old, Gay says all his experiences will help him. If you ask Raptors head coach Dwane Casey what he wants from Gay, the first thing he'll bring up is leadership. On that point, his player is right there with him. In fact, he already knows.

"I've seen it, I've been here," Gay says. "What this organization was when I got here, I've been there, when you're just outside of the playoffs. I've been way outside of the playoffs and I know what kind of level you have to be on to get to that point.

"I have to teach this team to have the mentality that we're going to win."

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"It's not hard to do, it's just a mentality," Gay continues. "I have to teach this team to have the mentality that we're going to win."

If Gay could tell his younger self anything, it'd be to not put so much pressure on himself, to just go out and play and be who he is. Whenever a less seasoned Raptor has a question about life in the league, he wants to be there to answer it. Remember that 24-year-old desperate to reach the playoffs after four losing seasons, the one whose biggest appearance in the spotlight as a pro was the dunk contest? That's DeMar DeRozan now.

"Honestly I want [DeRozan] to experience it because it's bigger than what he may think it is," Gay says. "You can go to a game and be a part of the crowd, but actually being a part of preparation and playing the same team seven times and being in the games and every game being televised and people picking apart what happened in each and every game, it's a lot of pressure."

Gay and DeRozan were friends before the trade. Now, they're familiar with one another's families. Laying the groundwork for the upcoming season with workouts in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, they talked about where they wanted to take Toronto's team.

"People are going to criticize us or say we can't play together, whatever, ever since he came," DeRozan says. "We use that negativity as motivation."

The Raptors wings are focused. They know they're doubted and they're anxious to get the season started and answer questions with their play.

"Me and Rudy are like the same person with the same type of attitude, same everything," DeRozan says. "I kind of look at him like an older brother."

If Gay wants to receive advice rather than dispense it, there are only a couple of people who have his ear. The first is Gray, the second Jim Calhoun, his coach at UConn. He checks in with Calhoun often, most recently before training camp.

"I don't need to talk to too many people," Gay says. "There are too many people telling me what I need to do. Who else do I need to talk to? The person who's with me the most and a Hall of Fame coach, that's all I need. Dream team right there."

Asked if there's anything he wants to tell people in Toronto gearing up for the games that count, Gay declines to give out personal goals or guarantees. He doesn't mention silencing detractors or rebounding from a rough year.

"I'm just going to go out there and I'm going to motivate this team to play as hard as we can," Gay says.

And with that, he leaves the court area and joins his teammates in locker room, done with another small step on the same path he's traveled elsewhere.

(Photos via USA Today Images)

For all things Toronto basketball, visit SB Nation's Raptors HQ

About the Author

James_herbert

James Herbert covers the NBA for SBNation.com. He writes features, mostly, and lives in Toronto. He is a former season ticket holder for the South East Melbourne Magic.

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