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A close look at Rudy Gay’s strong start for the Sacramento Kings

(Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)
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Last season can’t have been fun for Rudy Gay. After 18 games and just six wins, the Toronto Raptors decided they’d seen enough of his ball-stopping offensive inefficiency and found a willing trade partner in the Sacramento Kings. It looked like the Raptors were folding up the tent on their season, but they then went on a stunning hot streak and won the Atlantic Division by a healthy margin.

While Gay’s departure gave new life to the Raptors’ offense and their season, Gay himself was treated to five months of chaos in  Sacramento. He played better with the Kings, but his modest personal improvement wasn’t enough to move the needle for a team with ill-fitting talent and near-incoherent systems.

Last season, Gay was also made the straw man du jour for many in the analytics movement. He has long been held up as an illustration of the disconnect between looking like a great basketball player and being a great basketball player. Gay can do nearly everything an elite basketball player can do, but there is a margin of inefficiency that separates his results from players with similar physical tools and aesthetics like Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Analytics is about identifying marginal differences. Because Gay’s marginal deficits are often disguised by biceps, athletic dunks and beautiful jump-shooting form, he is perfect for the banners of those who lack faith in subjective, eye-test evaluations.

But through the first week of this season, Gay has swallowed those marginal deficits and channeled the criticism into stunningly efficient performance. Through five games, he has posted a 65.4 true shooting percentage with a usage rate of 27.3. The first is a career high and, if both continue at the same pace, would place him in the territory of elite high-volume scorers.

The chart below shows all players who were on the floor for at least 500 minutes last season, graphed by their usage rates and true shooting percentages.

Gay still finds himself at the extreme end of the spectrum in terms of offensive usage. The increase in his true shooting percentage has taken him from the middle of the pack to elite in terms of offensive efficiency. Gay has also slightly improved his rebounding, assist and turnover numbers, the effects of his increased efficiency. In fact, by Basketball Reference’s Box Plus-Minus, Gay’s overall offensive production has increased twelve-fold (from plus-0.5  to plus-6 points per 100 possessions) so far this season.

Four games is the epitome of small sample size, but you can see the weight being lifted from Gay’s shoulders with each jumper that goes down. He is validating his identity, making the statement that circumstance has dragged him down, not inadequacy. Gay would very much like you to know that he is, in fact, the basketball player that he believes himself to be.

Unfortunately, it may all be a smoke-and-mirrors show of randomness.

At 28 years old, just past the age where players typically reach their statistical peaks, it’s difficult to imagine that Gay has suddenly become a dramatically better player. If something really has changed in his game, something that will carry this five-game bump through the rest of the season, then the answer then has to be that he’s using his skills to play better.

The heart of his statistical improvement this season is his true shooting percentage, a statistic that is reflective of both a player’s accuracy and their shot distribution pattern — more layups, dunks and three-pointers will, usually, increase a player’s efficiency. It’s doubtful that Gay has suddenly become a more skilled shooter, but the sudden uptick could be explained by the types of shots he’s taking.

There is more to the quality of shot selection than just location but, unfortunately, the answer doesn’t lie there either. An improved Kings offense has not really resulted in more open shots for Gay. Thanks to the newly released data from the NBA’s SportVU Player Tracking system, we can actually see how closely guarded Gay’s shot attempts have been this season.

That’s not to say this won’t be a good year for Gay or the Kings. They look bouncy and positive, committed and focused in ways that were antithetical to their approach the past few seasons. They’re are already 4-1 and Gay has been right in the middle of things. He doesn’t stop the ball the way he did in Toronto, turning possessions into ill-designed solo arguments about his basketball relevance. The Kings’ offense works with him, not in spite of him. It’s not a perfect recipe by any means, but it’s not unworkable either.

The irony is that Gay’s jaw-dropping performance on the stage of Small Sample Size Theater is actually concealing two truths — he’s not the player these numbers say he is, but he’s not the player he was either. Gay has become something different, something that can be defined by what he is not and by what he is. Gay is not elite, in any area and by any rational definition. He is not a consistent defender and can’t always be trusted to make the right decision with the ball in his hands.

He is a scorer, one capable of maintaining a reasonable level of efficiency in high-usage situations, provided a compelling offensive framework can be wrapped around him. He is a talented fellow who cares about winning and can help a team do just that. He is Rudy Gay, slightly-above-average basketball player.

Ian Levy is the editor of Nylon Calculus and has written for 538, The Classical, Hardwood Paroxysm and The Cauldron. You can find him on Twitter, @HickoryHigh.