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Rudy Gay has turned himself into a perfect modern combo forward

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Once considered a throwback scorer doomed to obsolescence, Gay has evolved into a versatile role player with very few holes in his game.

NBA: Utah Jazz at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Rudy Gay was the poster boy for inefficiency, empty numbers and underachieving for so long that there was a significant subset of Spurs fans that weren’t too happy when he joined the franchise in 2017. He was seen as a uni-dimensional gunner unquestionably linked to dysfunction.

A season and change later, Gay has changed that perception. His game has evolved in just the right ways while still retaining the one-on-one scoring brilliance that made him a household name. Rudy has transformed himself from throwback wing to modern combo forward by adding outside shooting and defensive versatility to his already impressive ability to exploit mismatches.

Offensively the biggest knock on Gay was that he was simply too reliant on his mid-range game. As we’ve seen with Carmelo Anthony, that type of perimeter player doesn’t tend to age well, especially when the explosiveness to get to the rim dwindles. Rudy has made two adjustments that should allow him to avoid Melo’s fate and continue to be effective for years to come: he’s embraced the three-point shot and he’s been willing to play power forward more often. The former allows him to be a threat even when he doesn’t have the ball, while the latter will provide him with matchups in which he’ll either have an edge in quickness or power.

Gay’s evolution as a shooter has been a long time coming. He was only reluctant to take three-pointers in Memphis after his second year, but has slowly been incorporating them as a weapon since his Toronto days. He’s now a willing enough shooter that the defense needs to respect his presence as an off-ball threat on the perimeter. His outrageous 48 percent conversion rate is bound to come back to earth at some point, but if he can keep shooting above league average — and he was close to getting there in the aggregate the past five seasons — he’ll continue to be a viable floor spacer. It’s even possible, if not likely, that his conversion rate stays close to 40 percent since he’s traded some pull-up threes for catch-and-shoot ones in the past year and his success is not limited to just the corners.

The move to a combo forward role has been equally important in Gay’s reinvention as an offensive threat. It started in Sacramento and has continued in San Antonio, even though he’s been forced to the wing more often this year due to the lack of other options. Gay is bigger and stronger than most small forwards, so he can bully them inside. He also has a dependable pull-up he can use to force power forwards to play him close enough to use his first step to get by them. He has not been great on drives or getting to the line, but he’s been really good at getting to his spots and scoring efficiently inside the arc and in the paint, typically on posts up or short pull-ups that he has the green light to pursue. The Spurs let him play to his strengths.

The same happens on defense. He hasn’t been asked to turn into a stopper. Gregg Popovich will in fact occasionally start Dante Cunningham to take on the opponent’s best forward, like he did against LeBron JamesLakers. What the Spurs ask of Gay is to provide much needed versatility. He’s one of the Spurs’ most adaptable defenders across the perimeter, spending significant time guarding up and down a position, holding his own inside and acquitting himself well on switches. Gay is not the most disruptive off ball defender but no rotation player on the roster averages more “stocks” (steals plus blocks) per 36 minutes than he does. He’s also upped his rebounding to fulfill his responsibilities as a power forward, posting the best defensive rebound percentage of his career. He’s never going to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but he’s turned himself into a combo forward with no holes on defense.

All those developments would be impressive on their own, but Gay has managed to incorporate them while still retaining the skills he possessed before. The Spurs didn’t try to turn a high usage scorer into a 3-and-D player just because they needed one. Gay still handles the ball on occasion and he gets post ups and isolation opportunities, providing a perfect third option after DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. The difference is he now just has other ways to contribute that he lacked in the past. Instead of remaining a one-dimensional player who refused to adapt, he’s become more well-rounded. Instead of resigning himself to a role that doesn’t suit him, he’s created a new role in which his full skill set is on display. In many ways, he’s what the Spurs were hoping Richard Jefferson would be.

Gay’s evolution, as impressive as it’s been, is not complete. He still needs to develop the consistency in effort and production that role players have to possess to increase their value. The team needs Gay to deal with adversity a little better — if looks could kill, Bryn Forbes would have been dead about 10 defensive mistakes ago. They also need him to find the balance between deference on offense and passiveness. He can’t disappear for stretches and can’t allow poor shooting nights to zap him of his usual two-way energy. The Spurs don’t need him to drop 20 a night, but they do need him to use his full skill set every time he takes the court. They are an entirely different team when he does.

He’ll get there. The second act of Gay’s career, which actually started in Sacramento and has only continued in San Antonio, has been characterized by him slowly figuring out what he needs to improve upon to become a more useful player. It’s been a great turnaround by a player that was once considered to be committed to a playing style bound to make him irrelevant.

While Gay deserves all the credit for transforming his game, the Spurs should also get some props for believing in him after a serious injury, when not a lot of franchises did. With Gay entering unrestricted free agency next season and possibly leaving, it’s good to know that the front office hasn’t lost the ability to find overlooked or misunderstood veterans and help them become the best version of themselves.

The Spurs won’t win a title this year, but there are small victories that are still worth celebrating. The fact that San Antonio is still the type of place in which a veteran can succeed in a new chapter of his career is one of them.