Rudy Gay and the Raptors get a fresh start

USA TODAY Sports

Rudy Gay made his debut for the Toronto Raptors on Friday night.

Rudy Gay went through it all in Memphis. In six and a half seasons, he endured the lows of losing and played under playoff pressure. He came in at 20 years old, a top-tier talent who slipped to No. 8 in the draft. He left at 26, a veteran widely respected around the league but still trying to tap into the rest of his potential. In between he saw teammates and coaches come and go, suffered serious injuries and earned the expectations of a maximum contract extension. Now a Toronto Raptor, he wants to share his lessons learned and lead his younger teammates.

But unless you count a draft day deal, being traded was something new.

After scoring a game-high 20 points in a 98-73 blowout win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday, Gay sat down at his new locker at the Air Canada Centre to take questions just before 10:20 p.m. He looked and sounded rather relieved.

"It was just good to get a win," Gay said. "There are so many other things going on. It's the first time I've had to go through it. It just felt good to play basketball."

Less than 10 hours prior, he faced many of the same media members to talk about his new opportunity and what preceded it. At that press conference, he said trade rumors couldn't help but wear on him and it meant a lot to be wanted. He said it felt like being drafted again.

Gay didn't think he'd play against the Clippers. This depended on the Grizzlies and the Detroit Pistons completing paperwork and the required physicals for their new players. "Coach [Dwane Casey] asked me," Gay said. "He was like, ‘Yeah, well, if we get this through, you wanna play?' I said, ‘Yeah.' Any way I can get everything else that goes with being traded off my mind, I would have done."

To say it was a long day would be selling it short. Gay flew from Memphis -- where he'd arrived the previous afternoon from Oklahoma City -- to Toronto at 5:00 a.m. Friday morning. He met with team staff and had his physical before the press conference. With the time he spent with Casey going over some schemes and getting to know one another, Gay said he had just "an hour to chill" before coming back to the arena, getting dressed and getting shots up.

"Obviously basketball, it will handle itself, but [Casey was] just trying to acclimate me to different people in the team, different people around the organization and just talking to me about the past and just different degrees of separation, how he knows the same people," Gay said. "You gotta start the relationship there before we even get to everything else."

One advantage for Gay is he already has a few relationships in place. He knows fellow swingmen DeMar DeRozan and Alan Anderson from summertime workout sessions. He spent four years with assistant coach Johnny Davis in Memphis. He and point guard Kyle Lowry first met in eighth grade playing AAU basketball before becoming teammates as rookies with the Grizzlies. They played together for two and a half years and grew closer, now saying they're like brothers. Gay is the godfather to Lowry's son.

"We didn't know anything about this league," Gay said of their time in Memphis. "And now that we're back together and been through different teams and been through playoff runs and we both know how to win and how to play, it's so much better when you have maturity. And we can talk to each other and actually run things off each other and sometimes we might not agree on the same thing but I think the fact that we've grown and are mature, it'll be easier for us."

Gay and Lowry started their careers with a pair of 22-win seasons. Lowry watched almost all of his first campaign from the sideline, breaking his wrist 10 games in. The Grizzlies traded Lowry halfway through his third season before the two of them had a chance to share any success.

"We didn't get the opportunity to really blossom together and now it's just going to be an opportunity for us to blossom even more together," said Lowry. The point guard also said Gay's presence should open up the floor for DeRozan, a player he's seen grow since the start of the season. This is best evidenced by his passing -- he is averaging 5.7 assists in the last six games.

"We got a whole bunch of young guys but we're all very talented and can blossom and grow together," Lowry said.

That impact on DeRozan -- the man who signed a four-year extension worth more than $38 million on the season's opening night -- seemed more important than Gay's 20 points or the lopsided final score. One common criticism for the acquisition was how the two fit on the wing. They have similar skillsets and detractors doubt they will be able to make one another better or provide adequate floor spacing. These issues certainly could come to the surface, but both seemed the best of buds following their first game.

"DeMar's a great player," said Gay. "He's by far the best two guard I've ever played with. I think for us to be really good we have to have that kind of interaction together. This is the start of it. With more practice, more games together, the better it'll get."

DeRozan laughed when asked if Gay gave him more space to operate. "He gave me everything I needed, to be honest," he said. "Teams can't double me or focus in on me. That's the great thing. That's the great thing about it. It's just fun. Now we gotta continue to get better."

While one game against an uninspired-looking team means next to nothing, it's hard not to see how DeRozan sees fun in his future. He said at shoot-around that Gay was one of his favorite players to watch in college and the NBA. He's been dealing with teams trying to beat him up and take the ball out of his hands. Now, that will be more difficult.

"It's funny," DeRozan said. "Rudy being in LA a lot and I'll be with him -- I knew Rudy for a couple years now and jokingly we said in the summer, ‘When are we gonna play together?' It's just crazy. He knows my game and I know his game. Simple as that."

"Those two together I think can be really, really good," said Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. "You can't just key in on one guy. [Gay] is somebody that puts pressure on the defense. He's done it at a high level. They got a good one in him."

The hope is that Gay improves the team's already surprisingly potent offense. The team is 11th in offensive efficiency on the season, but the recently departed Jose Calderon and Ed Davis were major parts of that.

"Everyone's stretched out now," said Anderson. "It's hard to guard from one side to the other. You got DeMar, you got Rudy, you got [Terrence] Ross, you got me, you got Kyle ... so you hit ‘em from every angle."

Of course, what would be even more valuable is if Toronto could improve its 26th-ranked defense. Casey coaxed better-than-average efficiency out of his club on that end last year, but this season is a dramatically different story. Gay departed the league's second-best defensive team and he wants to prove a point about his individual play on that side. He knows that is the only way the Raptors can grow into a playoff team and wants to be a part of it.

"Before the trade even happened I asked [Lowry], ‘What do you think about the team?'" Gay said. "And he told me, ‘If you got here, we have a chance.' And that's what made me comfortable about the possibility of being here. Now being here, 24 hours later, I'm here getting wins."

It was just one win, but after a whirlwind of a half-season for Gay and for the Raptors, it's a start.

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