Is the Memphis Grizzlies' Rudy Gay the NBA's Most Underrated Superstar?

Tom FirmeAnalyst IIDecember 1, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 31: Rudy Gay #22 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on October 31, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Rudy Gay is substantially underappreciated for all that he does for the Memphis Grizzlies. His many gifts make him much more valuable than someone else with his core numbers. Combining all his various on-floor contributions, he’s pretty close to the top tier.

Gay has an incredibly long skill set. He knocks down three-pointers and long twos. He breaks down guys off the dribble, drives the lane and slams it home hard. The Connecticut product breaks away on fast breaks to drill it in.

Besides his highlight-reel offensive play, the 26-year-old is a terrific defender. He has averaged 1.5 steals per game the last three seasons. He allowed 102 points per 100 possessions last season and 100 per 100 this season.

With that skill set and total on-floor contribution, Gay is the fourth-best small forward in the league behind the elite trio of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

Indeed, he’s not the most underrated star in the NBA. If Rudy Gay isn't the most underrated superstar in the NBA, then who is?

Determining the most underrated star requires a look at the rankings and evaluations of others.

Take a look at the rankings of the Grizzlies' small forward and Al Jefferson of the Utah Jazz. Gay should be No. 4 at his position, but typically falls one or two places below that. He was sixth among small forwards in the ESPN preseason rankings (No. 32 overall) behind the the aging Paul Pierce and jack-of-all-trades Andre Iguodala, as well as the presumed top three.

Pierce, again, has lost a bit of effectiveness with age. Iguodala is even more multitalented than Gay, but can't be expected to be a credible No. 1 or 2 scorer on a good team.

The SLAM preseason player rankings had Gay fourth among all guys at the 3 spot, which was just right.

The Sporting News preseason positional rankings (no overall ranking was made) placed him fifth behind the decreasingly truthful player with the nickname "The Truth."

He'll surely rebound from his eighth-place spot in the periodically updated Total Player Ratings. Two overperforming players, Luol Deng and Chandler Parsons, are currently ahead of him and will regress.

This is not nearly as unfair as the placement of Jefferson in the preseason rankings. Jefferson deserves to be ranked No. 3 among centers anywhere a fan may look, but is often much lower than that.

He's No. 14 among centers in the SLAM rankings, No. 9 in the Sporting News rankings and No. 10 in the ESPN rankings.

The choice of players ahead of the big guy range from lifetime-achievement honorees to jokes. Putting the spastic Joakim Noah ahead of Jefferson is equivalent to putting Mark Buerhle ahead of David Price, an above-average guy who goes hard ahead of a bona fide premier player.

Placing Kevin Garnett, for whom Jefferson was traded when he went to the Minnesota Timberwolves to fulfill himself, and Tim Duncan is presuming that the pair of old veterans are the same as they were in 2002.

As hard as KG or Duncan may play in order to chalk up numbers or make up for current deficiencies, they can't do what Jefferson can do at this point.

Jefferson spreads out his shots across two-point range and does it very well. He took 21.5 percent of all his shots at the rim, 36 percent from three to nine feet away, 21.4 percent from 10 to 15 feet and 20.5 percent from 16 feet to the arc in 2011-12.

He may be faulted for a field-goal percentage (49.2 percent last season and 46.8 percent this year) that's relatively low for a center. But you can't get upset when Tyrone Corbin's soldier takes 71.5 percent of his attempts as jump shots.

When a player averages upwards of 18 points per game in four of five years, it doesn't matter too much how he produces it.

He's currently at a career low in field-goal percentage, but he'll bounce back.

By the way, Jefferson is an outstanding defender who is forced to make up for the shortcomings of his teammates. He allowed 103 points per 100 possessions last season and 100 per 100 this season. Those rates might seem a bit ordinary, but they'd be better if he didn't have to uphold the team's defense by himself.

The nine-year pro is a spectacular player, but doesn't get his due because he doesn't fit the classic post-player mold. Being nontraditional shouldn't hurt Jefferson, but it seems to have affected his standing.

While there is no question Rudy Gay deserves more national recognition, Al Jefferson currently holds the title of the game's most underrated star.