Why Rudy Gay still believes he can turn his season with the Utah Jazz around

The veteran’s production has been down from a year ago, but he is hopeful that some extra time on the court now will have him ready for the playoffs.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rudy Gay on offense for the Jazz during a home game against the Brooklyn Nets in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022.

This season has not really gone the way that Rudy Gay wanted so far.

Offseason heel surgery that caused him to sit out the Utah Jazz’s summer workouts, special Las Vegas training camp, all four preseason games, plus the first 14 games of the regular season. Subsequent soreness which made him inactive for another four games. A stretch of right knee pain followed by a non-COVID illness that cost him six consecutive games in February.

And when he has played …

Well, his overall shooting is down roughly 2.5% from a year ago, and his 3-point shooting is down a full 5%. His scoring has dipped by more than three points per game, his true shooting, effective field-goal percentage, usage, assist percentage, turnover percentage, box plus/minus are all worse than a year ago.

“It’s been a weird season,” he noted recently.

Yeah, you could say that.

The easy conclusion is that the Jazz’s marquee free-agent addition has been something of a bust — too much athleticism gone at 35 years old … not a good enough shooter to flourish in Utah’s free-flowing, high-octane offense … too slow to effectively function as the small-ball five the front office hoped he could be … and not really worth even the taxpayer-midlevel the team handed him in free agency.

But go back and read that very first sentence again, and notice that it ends with “so far.” There’s hope yet from both the player and the organization that the forward’s presence may yet pay off.

When the Jazz dropped a contentious decision in Dallas recently, coach Quin Snyder wrapped up his postgame media session with a curious comment meant for the team at large, but which could also be singularly applied to Gay, as well.

“We’re [still] learning,” Snyder said. “I know it sounds crazy to say that [because] we’re in March.”

It does indeed feel like an anachronistic idea for a team to not be closing in on being a finished product with the postseason just around the corner.

And yet, days later, Gay would echo his coach’s sentiments, noting that even in his 16th season of pro ball, he was still — and once again — finding his way.

“It takes time when you come to a team like this, a coach like this. It takes time to figure things out. And I had a couple setbacks,” Gay noted. “… It’s a process no matter what stage of your career it is. I like to say, ‘It’s just basketball,’ but it’s a lot different — you got philosophy, you got players, you got teammates you’re trying to learn. So it takes a little while.”

And Gay is learning still.

Mike Conley, a teammate of Gay’s for several seasons in Memphis at the beginnings of their respective careers, noted in the early weeks of this campaign how weird it was, on some level, to be reunited with him.

“I look at Rudy, I look at him now and he looks the exact same to me, I feel like we haven’t changed, but then you look at a picture from 14, 15 years ago, and we look like little kids,” Conley said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gay (8) reacts after scoring and getting fouled, in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Washington Wizards, at Vivint Arena on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.

Gay’s game looks a little different these days, too.

He’s long since removed from his time as a high-flying, ball-dominant wing who was the star of his team.

That said, he explained there’s a reason why he’s still around alongside a select few others — Kyle Lowry, LaMarcus Aldridge, P.J. Tucker, Rajon Rondo, Paul Millsap — from the 2006 draft class.

“My career, up until San Antonio, I had the ball in my hands most of the game. But if you want to stick around and be here … if you want longevity, you’ve got to be able to perform different roles, be able to do different things,” Gay said. “A lot of that is being realistic with yourself. But also, how are you gonna assert yourself on a team? I don’t ever want to compete with anybody on my team. I know what I can do, I know what I bring — I want to be the best at that.”

Then-Jazz forward Joe Ingles’ appearance on JJ Redick’s podcast was invoked, in which Ingles claimed that perhaps 90% of the players in the NBA were unhappy with their roles.

Mastering that, Gay added, is how young players get to be old players.

“Ninety percent of players aren’t happy? The other 10% are realistic. Realistic about where they’re at in their career, what they can give to a team,” he said. “… The teams with the most guys that are realistic about how the team make-up is, those are the teams that are most successful.”

Gay said that the significant injuries he suffered throughout his career helped him make that realization.

He really began to embrace that change in earnest when he chose the Spurs in free agency a handful of years ago.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was asked what Gay brings to the table these days.

“Just a human being, he was a great teammate, everybody enjoyed him, he had a great sense of humor, just a good guy. Basketball-wise, he really took in the fact that he needed to be a 3-point shooter more than a 2-point shooter. He welcomed that over time. So he became much more valuable in that regard, too,” Popovich said. “… He accepted a new role. He realized as his career moves on that he’s not going to be the focal point of something. And he’s not stubborn — he’s smart, he gets it. So it helps.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah forward Rudy Gay (8) shoots a 3-pointer for the Jazz, in NBA action between Utah Jazz and Toronto Raptors, at Vivint Arena, in Salt Lake City, on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.

Conley, who’s had his own on-court struggles over the past month or so, noted that accepting the inevitability of change and being flexible as a result is something he and Gay have in common at this point.

“Our games have changed a lot. As you get older, you don’t do the same things you used to,” said Conley. “I remember I would just throw the ball anywhere up in the air and he’d probably touch the top of the backboard and just get it. He probably still can. But he’ll tell you he doesn’t really want to do that as much anymore. He’d rather make plays and shoot 3s and use his size. His game has matured, his game has gotten so much better.”

The forward did, in fact, agree.

“Do I feel I could do more on this team? Probably. But we’re already good. I don’t have to kill myself every night!” he joked. “I don’t get paid enough to do that. And I don’t think my body could take it, either.”

And so, what drives him these days is simple.

“I’m 35, man. At this point, I just want to win, be part of a winning culture,” Gay said. “And if that’s not the case, I’ll take my ass home.”

His new teammates on the Jazz have seen him embrace that mentality every day.

From the moment he joined the team, he’s made it a point to get in younger players’ ears, giving them career longevity advice, teaching certain moves and tricks that can help exploit a particular matchup. Donovan Mitchell, in particular, has noted what a resource Gay has been to him, as someone who understands the pressures of being a focal point of a team’s offense.

And now, Mitchell said, Gay is all about the bigger picture.

“You get to a point where you just want to win,” he said. “You’ve achieved so much — he has 17,000 points, he’s been a max [contract] player twice, I think; he’s at a point where he wants to win and find his identity as a champion. When that strikes you, you find ways to embrace your new role.”

Of course, the Jazz brought Gay in not just to be a locker room presence, but an on-court one, too.

There too, Mitchell insists, Gay is putting in the work.

“He’s just trying to figure his way, as far as plays,” said the All-Star guard. “He’s done this a thousand times. He’s doing the film, he’s doing extra reps, he’s getting in the conversation trying to figure out where he needs to be and where guys like to be.”

Gay noted that he’s still acclimating to what the Jazz do, and what a shock to the system it is for him to have such a heavy emphasis on 3-point shooting.

“Earlier in my career, that’s a shot I wouldn’t take. Even last year, I wouldn’t take that,” he said. “But it’s easy when you’ve got coach in your ear telling you to shoot it.”

Popovich joked that shouldn’t really be that much of an adjustment for him.

“Well, I think that’s the easiest thing to accept — shoot the ball,” he said. “Most players don’t argue about that very much.”

The biggest issue surrounding Gay’s drop in production this season, according to Snyder, has simply been the forward’s availability. His system takes time for players to learn and adjust to — even grizzled vets, as Conley can attest to.

So while his debut performance of hitting 5 of 6 shots beyond the arc en route to 20 points thrilled fans, it was, in all honesty, a bit of fool’s gold.

“I told him on the bench, ‘I don’t even think you’re that good. You’re not this good,’” Conley joked. “That was unbelievable.”

Gay’s offseason heel surgery put him behind — he said he had to “learn how to walk again” — and he’s been playing catch-up ever since. And so, there’s a reason why he hasn’t felt like a natural fit on offense. And there’s a reason why, when the Jazz have gone small, their defense has cratered to 30th out of 30 teams.

And so there’s a reason why, long after all the other rotation guys were on the bench in the Jazz’s long-out-of-hand victory over the depleted and tanking Blazers on March 9, Gay was still on the court. Snyder is trying to get him some extra run as the season winds down.

“I feel about Rudy the way I do about our team: as he plays more, he’ll continue to be able to give us more,” said Snyder. “… Getting him out there is important to us. Rudy’s obviously someone we feel like can really impact the game for us.”

Gay, despite seemingly everything going wrong so far with his Jazz tenure, remains hopeful still that it will all work out — for him individually, and then, by extension, for the team as well.

“I feel pretty good going into the later part of the season. This is good. We went through a lot early. That was good for us,” he said. “The thing about it is, I’m motivated. Just trying to make a long run in these playoffs. That’s what it’s really about. The real season’s coming. This is all trying to get in a rhythm so we can be our best by then.”

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