Tuesday December 11th, 2007

Jerry West's parting gift to the NBA was Rudy Gay. Entering his final season as the Memphis Grizzlies' president, West gambled by trading Shane Battier -- a solid veteran and community leader -- to Houston for Gay, the No. 8 pick in the 2006 draft. West was betting the Grizzlies' future on a 6-foot-8 UConn sophomore devalued by rival teams as an exasperating talent who lacked passion for the game.

It hasn't taken long for West to be vindicated. Gay is leading the Grizzlies with 18.7 points per game -- up from 10.8 as a rookie last year -- while occasionally flaunting his All-Star potential as a playmaker and explosive finisher.

"I think Jerry was right and I'm happy to be the beneficiary,'' said Chris Wallace, the Grizzlies' new general manager. "In the past, Rudy didn't make shots from outside with the consistency he's making them now. He's blocking shots, he's having some really good rebounding games, and he's very young -- he would be a senior in college right now. He's the type of guy you've got to have because that's a clean-up hitter we're talking about. Down the road in the playoffs, he could be the best player [in a series].''

Though Gay is less persuasive in his self-assessment, he doesn't lack confidence. "I have high goals,'' he said. "I would love to be an All-Star every year -- I want to have something to do on that weekend.''

Six months before the draft, Gay was widely projected as the No. 1 pick. He has no difficulty remembering the anonymous criticisms from NBA scouts that caused him to plunge.

"How could I forget it: He's inconsistent, he's soft, things like that,'' said Gay, now 21. "I think that's what kept me going. That's one thing that motivates me during the summer. These guys say I can't do this, so why not work on it?''

The most damning criticism was that Gay played because he had a talent for it, and not because he loved it.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't love the game,'' he said. "People like that get exposed. I want to be here night in, night out. After the draft, I was in the local gym shooting. I love this game, and hopefully more people understand that.''

But that love will be tested. The better he plays, the more coach Marc Iavaroni will demand of him.

"We're on him,'' Iavaroni said. "We expect a lot from him. We don't want to beat him down, we don't want to mess with his confidence, but we want to demand more from the guys who have more to give. We want it all out. If he has a little to give, we'll ask for a little. If he has a lot to give, we'll ask for a lot.''

Can a subdued talent like Gay become a star? He may be undervalued by playing for a rebuilding team in Memphis.

"His personality doesn't say star -- he's a quiet guy, polished, reserved,'' a Western Conference personnel executive said. "Everything about him says that he's going to be a quiet and appreciated player for a long time. Even if his numbers keep growing the way they're growing, very few people will pay attention. So it's hard to say that he can quickly be a big-time player in the league. But I do think he's going to be really good.''

His coach frowns on such talk.

"Time will tell,'' Iavaroni said. "People used to say about Joe Johnson that he doesn't have that in him, he's a laid-back guy. But he has it in him; he's a quiet competitor, and Rudy is the same way.''

There is no doubting the potential when you see Gay find a teammate out of the corner of his eye for a cutting layup, or snap off a dunk as abruptly as a frog snapping at a fly. But he still carries the label of not working hard enough to fulfill that potential. Iavaroni is determined to help him beat the stigma as a talent who disappears for long stretches.

"He's a guy who wants the ball in his hands and he's going to make a play, he's going to make something happen,'' said Iavaroni, who emphasizes that he didn't design the offense to make Gay the leading scorer. Instead, Gay has seized the opportunity.

Iavaroni doesn't dwell on Gay's potential All-Star future.

"He probably hears that a lot,'' the coach said. "I go with more, 'I want you to be a winner and this is what you have to do to win. You have to play defense, you have to do these other things you're not known for. And people are going to try to put you on the bench with fouls and go at you on this end -- like they do to all scorers -- and make you play defense and put you in the hole. So we're not going to be letting you rest on defense.'

"That's what Rudy has to be cognizant of. He's now the leading scorer on the team, but he has to be more than that. He has to be understanding both sides of the coin so that we're now [becoming] a winning team.''

Iavaroni intends to give his big men a bigger role in the offense, which was the original plan. But Pau Gasol's slow start and Darko Milicic's hand injury opened up this opportunity for Gay, and the rest of the league should note how well he is exploiting it. He may need to raise his intensity, but realize how much he's grown already. Gay isn't surprised by his escalation.

"I definitely could be in the position where I'm expected to do things night in night out,'' he said, "so why not now?''

As much as he's driven by his critics, Gay is also inspired by the confidence shown in him by his former team president. West finished his term in Memphis last June by using the No. 4 pick on point guard Mike Conley Jr., but that selection came as little surprise. It was the move for Gay that will be remembered.

"He made a lot of changes to get me here, and I think I work harder because of that,'' Gay said. "If someone like him trusts you and wants you to do things for his team, then that means a lot to me.''

Others may be slow to notice, but Gay can be sure that West is watching.

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