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Rudy Gay isn’t expected back soon, but he tells Utah Jazz fans not to be worried

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rudy Gay is interviewed during Utah Jazz media day at Vivint Arena, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021 in Salt Lake City.

There’s both a glass-half-empty way and a glass-half-full way to look at Rudy Gay’s situation.

On Friday, the Utah Jazz forward commented publicly for the first time on his offseason surgery to repair his right heel, the same surgery that has kept him out of the Jazz’s preseason action so far and will continue to keep him out through the early part of the regular season.

Gay said that the heel had caused him pain that he’d been “playing with for a while” — five years, in fact. And finally, he decided last season that the pain had gotten to be too much, and he’d undergo the surgery to correct it.

But both Gay and the team are being extremely cautious about his return, too.

“I’m a professional athlete. I don’t work a desk job. So I understand people expect me to go out there and play,” Gay said. “This is one of those things where I want to be playing in the summer and I don’t want this to be nagging on me. So, you know, we want to make sure this is right.”

So there’s the glass-half-empty news: Gay doesn’t know when he’ll return, nor does there seem to be particular urgency in the comeback. The priority is the playoffs, and the team will sacrifice regular-season minutes in the meantime.

But the glass-half-full aspect is this: Gay was a pretty solid NBA contributor over the last five seasons, playing through pain. Can he be a better player without his heel hurting on the court? And will some rest in the regular season mean Gay plays at a higher level in April, May, and June?

Optimists out there could also take some joy in Gay’s practice workouts. Even though he hasn’t been in any games so far, Gay has been part of the team’s shooting contests, finding himself in groups with all caliber of marksmen, from Rudy Gobert to Joe Ingles.

On Friday, his practice also consisted of some work in the post: both scoring with an assistant coach defending, and learning how the Jazz might move players around him to find open cutters and shooters.

In short, it’s not that Gay doesn’t want to be around, or that he’s taking it easy. It’s more that he’s playing it smart; and in the meantime, still staying engaged with his teammates.

“Oh man, he’s been a great leader for us,” said Mike Conley — who also played with Gay in Memphis. “You know, the guy is just constantly around in the scrimmage, and he’s giving advice. He’s also still trying to learn. We do have a lot of nuances and small things that other teams might not do or say or implement. And so he’s trying to be caught up as fast as you can. So he’s constantly asking questions — and the guys love him. We’re excited to get him back healthy and ready to go.”

The return may not be soon, but Gay isn’t worried how the Jazz will fare in his absence.

“The fact that this team was the number one team in the league last year without me, that gives me a cushion,” Gay said. “This is a good team with or without me. I just want to contribute and get them over the hump.”

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