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The three-team, late January trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors was, in some respects, a referendum on how you view and value the talent and worth of an NBA player, generating boatloads of responses from different perspectives. Some accused the Memphis Grizzlies of breaking up a title contender by shipping out a hyper-athletic 26-year-old forward who can create his own shot. Others found Toronto's interest in a low-efficiency wing player who's not a great rebounder, defender or facilitator for his position and is due $37.2 million over the next two seasons somewhat baffling.
Memphis seemed to hit its stride after moving Gay, rising from the bottom-third of the league in points scored per possession on the day of the trade up to the middle of the pack afterward. Possessions once belonging to Gay were largely redistributed to more effective players like Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph, and the Grizzlies' vise-grip defense remained stalwart enough to propel them to the Western Conference finals. To his credit, Gay picked up his individual production after the trade, hitting some game-winners and helping the Raptors close the season with a 17-16 mark in his 33 games. But the combination of the Grizzlies' ascendance and his own better-but-still-below-average shooting marks — 42.5 percent from the floor, 36 percent from midrange, 33.6 percent from 3-point land — quieted some of the "Memphis lost a star" talk.
A weird yet entirely plausible explanation for those subpar shooting numbers came up after Toronto's season ended, when Bruce Arthur of the National Post reported that Gay "has required contact lenses for years, but has refused to wear them, and could not get comfortable with goggles this season." This seemed like kind of a big deal, considering the accurate throwing of a ball through a metal ring represents a pretty big part of Gay's job description; four days after Arthur's report, the Raptors announced that Gay had undergone a procedure "to correct vision in his left eye."
During a workout at his alma mater, Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn, Md., Gay spoke with SLAM's Adam Figman about just how bad the issues were, among other things:
“I did have vision problems,” Gay confesses, sitting up on the trainer’s table after Gray finishes stretching out his muscles. “Actually, it was terrible. I could hardly get my license.” The National Post reported that he refused to wear the contact lenses he desperately needed, which was correct: “I have a stigma about that stuff — I can’t put anything up my nose and I can’t touch my eyes. I think that just comes from me growing up seeing people on drugs — I got over my stigma of needles, but I couldn’t do any of that other stuff. I couldn’t wear contacts. I wore glasses, sometimes.”
Gay finally had the operation to clear up his sight early this summer. “It wasn’t even a regular operation,” he explains. “It was some kind of crazy operation that took a lot more time to heal than I thought. It sucked. They had to patch it up [after], and I had to take eye drops, all stuff that I hated. But I had to do it. It’s crazy because as much work as I’m putting in working on my shot, if I come back shooting [a better] percent from the three-point line, everybody’s gonna say it’s ’cause of my vision, not the hard work I’m putting in.”
I can kind of understand Gay's preemptive frustration. When you put in as many hours of work on developing your game and honing your craft as an NBA player does, you'd like the credit for any improvement to go toward all that hard work and dedication rather than to a LASIK technician, or whomever.
That said, any griping about not getting appropriate praise seems a bit weird, considering the primary reason for the praise would be improved shooting accuracy that Gay very well may have been able to improve himself years ago had he gotten over being squeamish about sticking his finger in his eye. Also, this praise remains purely theoretical, because it requires Gay to start making a higher percentage of his jump shots; after seven years of that not happening super frequently, we're going to need to see that — with our glasses on, contacts in, whatever — before we believe it.
If it does work, though — if Gay proves consistently able to can jumpers off the bounce, when opponents go under screens against him in the pick-and-roll, when the ball swings his way in Toronto's half-court offense, etc. — it would go a long way toward making Dwane Casey's Raptors a legitimate threat to snare one of the East's final two or three playoff slots. Improved shotmaking would also figure to bolster a five-man unit (Gay and DeMar DeRozan on the wings, Kyle Lowry at the point, and Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas up front) that scored like a top-10 offense, defended at an elite level and outscored opponents by nearly 13 points per 100 possessions in 343 minutes after Gay's arrival in Canada, according to NBA.com's stat tool. As potent as that group was, it doesn't have a consistent long-range threat, and it attempted just 13 long balls per 48 minutes of floor time last season.
"If he can knock [the 3-point shot] down consistently, everything is gonna open up more," Gay's trainer, Dustin Gray, told Figman. "Being a threat from out there will open up situations off of close-outs and they’ll have to play him differently off ball-screens. It’s gonna open up the court for him much more."
Depending on how effective Gay is to start the season, I wonder if it'd also open up increased interest in employing vision training as part of teams' player development and strength-and-conditioning programs. MLB's Washington Nationals have emphasized it over the past few years with positive results, but we haven't heard a whole lot about similarly styled approaches in the NBA.
That's a long way off, though; for starters, it'd be neat if Gay just made some more shots. I'm guessing Raptors fans won't really care the makes come from an afternoon of laser work, countless hours of sweat or Valanciunas casting a magic spell on his 6-foot-8 teammate so long as the net ripples; once that starts happening, we can worry about slicing up credit.