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Rudy Gay makes a big first impression on the Utah Jazz: ‘He’s a hell of a player 26 seasons in’

In his Utah Jazz debut, “Ocho” thrills teammates, coaches and fans, while making a frenemy out of Joe Ingles.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gay (8) heads down court after sinking a 3-point shot, in NBA action between Utah Jazz and Toronto Raptors, at Vivint Arena, in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.

Rudy Gay’s debut with the Utah Jazz on Thursday night was, by pretty much all measures, a spectacular success: 20 points, five rebounds, two assists in just over 18 minutes … ridiculously effective shooting … solid defending … and an adoring home crowd absolutely enthralled.

If we’re nitpicking, he wasn’t perfect: He did miss one of his eight shots, after all. Committed three turnovers, too. And he was pretty winded by the end. Perhaps most egregiously, though — he angered the beloved Joe Ingles

“I think he stole my shooting powers,” the Aussie declared afterward. “That kind of pisses me off.”

OK, so Jingles was joking, but it’s perhaps a perfectly understandable sentiment when a guy who was out of action through OTAs, training camp, preseason, and the first 13 games of the regular season following surgery to correct a years-old heel injury suddenly comes in and seemingly effortlessly drills 7 of 8 shots, including 5 of 6 from deep.

Gay, told of his post-practice shooting partner’s theory about his shot-making prowess, gave a theatrical eye roll.

“We know that’s what we do here is shoot 3s. I knew that coming in here,” Gay said. “Joe’s a good shooter, but … Like I said earlier, I’m no slouch, man. I am closing in on 20,000 [career] points. There’s a lot of 3s in there. I’m usually humble, but …”

Hey, no need to be humble after a night like that.

To his point, he’s been a highly successful player throughout his career, and there was a reason the capped-out Jazz made him their target in free agency this past summer. An already-strong bench featuring Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson, 6MOY runner-up Ingles, effective backup big man Hassan Whiteside, and now-former rotation stalwart Eric Paschall just got weaponized that much more.

All the Jazz personnel who spoke after the game found something different to like about Gay’s game:

“Rudy [brings] shot-making ability, floor spacing,” noted Ingles.

“He really gave us a spark on both ends. And what I really like is like is he’s really looking for his teammates. And then he shot the ball when he was open.,” said Rudy Gobert. “… He showed some physicality — there were a few times he got somebody on the boards, he hit somebody, and they didn’t get the rebound. So he’s going to be huge for us.”

“He played within himself. He made the game easy because of decisions that he made. He made shots, but that’s a byproduct of making the right play,” added coach Quin Snyder. “… Defensively, his length impacts shots, even if he doesn’t block a shot. His willingness to move the ball. Something as simple as spacing; with this height, again, he’s able to pass the ball — he had the one driving layup, but most of the shots he got were after the ball moved some and he was open. He was efficient. To be out for that long, it just tells you he’s a basketball player.”

Gay’s personal self-assessment afterward included plaudits for not being a ball-stopper — keeping it moving by either finding teammates or quickly pulling the trigger himself — as well as his adaptability in being able to mesh with whoever he found himself on the court with. Meanwhile, he gave himself a demerit for a lack of stamina, noting that Utah’s altitude has taken some adjusting, then admitting he ran a mile postgame and pre-interview just to bolster his cardio.

“It’s tough playing up here in the elevation,” he said.

Then again, pretty much everything about this year has been tough for him.

“I’m gonna be honest with y’all: This is one of the toughest offseasons and starts of a season I’ve ever been a part of,” said Gay. “I’m 35 years old, I had foot surgery, basically had to teach myself how to walk again — again, after tearing my Achilles before. It’s not easy. It’s a lot of dedication. And like I’ve said before, you gotta be a little crazy, [even] without injuries to play in the league this long, and be able to stay here and be able to chase around these 19-year-olds and be able to play for different coaches and different locker rooms. You gotta be a little different. And I’m a little different.”

And yet, the man now known as “Ocho” within the Jazz’s facilities (“It’s really for coach more than anything. … He called ‘Rudy’ and both of us walked up today.”) has had zero trouble fitting in.

With the sole exception, maybe, of faux-aggravating that one teammate.

“He’s a hell of a player 26 seasons in,” said Ingles. “And hopefully now that everyone knows he can shoot, he can give me some of my powers back.”

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