Rudy Gay had some shining moments with the Kings, in addition to more than a few low points. Nonetheless, he is no longer the player that frustrated so many fans in Memphis and Toronto. Although his injury will limit his market, Rudy could still be a valuable contributor in the right situation.
With free agency starting, the Kings will have a number of targets with their massive piles of cap space. One player who will not be courted by the Kings is Rudy Gay. Rudy opted out of the final year of his contract with the Kings. He will reportedly (per Adrian Wojnarowski) be meeting with teams in Austin, Texas once free agency begins.
Although Rudy was a polarizing player during his stints in Memphis and Toronto, he turned his play around during his three and a half years in Sacramento. He improved his efficiency as a scorer while also taking on a larger playmaking role than he had in his previous two stops. While Rudy reportedly had quite a lot to say about the Kings behind closed doors, he was a consummate teammate while in Sacramento. His reputation as a chucker may continue to follow him, but Rudy could be a key contributor for a competitor next season.
Offense: Improved Efficiency
During his days in Memphis, Rudy Gay was primarily an isolation scorer who would occasionally break out some massive dunks. During his brief stint in Toronto, he devolved into one of the league's most notorious chuckers. That led to his eventual trade to Sacramento, where Rudy unexpectedly revitalized his offensive game.
Rudy never managed to cobble together a True Shooting percentage above 55% in his first eight years in the league. However, he put up a 56.7% mark during his first 55 games in Sacramento. He then finished two of his next three years in Sacramento with a True Shooting percentage above that 55% mark that usually denotes a league-average shooter. Despite his increased efficiency, Rudy averaged more points per game in the 2014-15 season than at any other time in his career.
Even though Rudy has always been able to put up points, he ate up far more possessions than he should have before joining the Kings. Rudy scored just 0.842 points per possession in his 2012-13 campaign in Memphis per Synergy Sports, which put him in the 32nd percentile league-wide. He was even worse in his short stint in Toronto the next year, putting up just 0.803 points per possession which ranked in the 21st percentile. That jumped to 0.969 points per possession (in the 71st percentile) in his first season in Sacramento, and Rudy graded out as above-average on offense on a per-possession basis in each of his three full years as a King. Part of this was due to Rudy putting on some weight during his time in Sacramento; that allowed him to bully smaller wings on his way to the rim instead of settling for fadeaway jump shots:
In addition to his improved efficiency on offense, Rudy developed his playmaking skills during his time in Sacramento. Rudy averaged 3.1 assists during his partial 2013-14 year in Sacramento, and a solid 3.7 per game in his next season. As the secondary offensive option behind DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy kept the ball in motion far better than anyone could have expected after watching his purely isolation-scoring game in Toronto.
Defense: Newfound Growth
Rudy Gay had all the athletic tools to become an elite defender. With a 7'3" wingspan and a 40.5" vertical leap measured at a 2006 NBA Pre-Draft Camp, Rudy's 12'2.5" maximum reach is one of the highest ever recorded and put him in an echelon usually reserved for the bounciest of big men.
However, Rudy often struggled to use his athleticism effectively on the defensive end. His effort often waxed and waned, and quicker wing players often managed to find a way around Rudy on the way to the rim. Despite playing for a defense-first team in Memphis and having all the tools needed to excel, Rudy often stood out for the Grit 'n' Grind Grizzlies as the one player who put all of his energy into his offensive play while slacking off on defense.
That being said, Rudy did show positive signs on the defensive end this season should encourage any team looking to sign him this offseason. Although his Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.96 this season (eighth among small forwards) overstates his defensive impact, his above-average mark of 0.36 last season does at least signal a trend. The same added strength that has helped Rudy to become more efficient on the offensive end has helped him to guard larger players on the defensive side of the ball. While Rudy might not particularly want to shift down a position, he will certainly be more effective as a stretch-four going forward on both ends of the floor. Even if his elite athleticism does not return after his recovery from his Achilles tear, his improved shooting from deep (a solid 37.2% last season) and added bulk will allow him to be effective as a small-ball four.
According to George Karl, Rudy Gay welcomed his new coach to Sacramento with the now-famous line "welcome to basketball hell." Although Rudy might not have been pleased with the team behind closed doors, his teammates did not seem to think of him as a locker room issue. DeMarcus Cousins proclaimed that the team was dedicating their season to Rudy after his injury. Ty Lawson was just as upset about the injury: “Rudy’s a good guy and for him to go down like that this time of year, at this point of his life is kinda tough...it kind of hurt my soul.”
While all signs point to a smooth recovery for Rudy thus far, any major injury after age 30 has to be a concern for potential suitors. However, Rudy's ability to play both forward spots will be enticing to potential competitors. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who tried to trade for Rudy prior to last season, are reportedly still interested in him per the Adrian Wojnarowski statement linked above.
Rudy Gay might not have enjoyed his time in Sacramento, but his 2014-15 season in Sacramento was the best of his career. While losing Gay for nothing this offseason is unfortunate, he was more fun to watch as a King than anyone could have expected after his time in Toronto. Even though his career may be on the decline, Rudy has earned the right to return to playoff contention. He might not be missed in Sacramento as much as DeMarcus Cousins, but he turned his career around to some extent while in a Kings uniform.
Rudy Gay was not a fit for the Kings' new direction. However, barring an unexpectedly steep injury-related decline, he will be a valuable contributor for a playoff team next season. For a player who looked as if the league passed him by during his Toronto days, basketball hell may have been more of a slice of heaven than Rudy ever realized.