Can Rudy Gay Be Franchise Face Toronto Raptors Desperately Need?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 7, 2013

The Toronto Raptors want Rudy Gay to be everything the Memphis Grizzlies thought he couldn't. And they're willing to pay him for it now.

Per Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo is prepared to offer Gay a contract extension after this season:

The struggling Raptors appear to believe in Gay. General manager Bryan Colangelo already views him as the face of the franchise, and a source said he will likely offer a contract extension in the offseason. Toronto is in need of star power since the departure of Chris Bosh and the demise of Andrea Bargnani, the former No. 1 draft pick. Attempts will be made to move Bargnani this summer for a proven scoring post player, sources said.

After relinquishing a talent like Ed Davis and essentially depleting their low-post threats, it was clear the Raptors were committed to Gay. But this recent news is nonetheless surprising.

Gay isn't eligible to become a free agent until after next season, at which point he has to terminate the last year of his contract to hit the open market.

Upon his acquisition, that seemed like a reasonable timetable. Both Gay and the Raptors would have 18 months to see if they were a mutual fit. The team would have more than a season to see if Gay was the franchise star it craved and the forward would have time enough to feel out the Toronto market.

Toronto doesn't appear willing to wait it out, though. The Raptors seemingly want to lock Gay down now or rather, as soon as possible.

On many levels, we can't blame them. They've been searching for a talent to lead them toward prominence since drafting Chris Bosh in 2003. Over these last 10 years they have been spurned by Bosh himself, housed a wasted draft pick in Andrea Bargnani and even failed to appeal to Steve Nash this past summer.

Having not made it to the playoffs since 2008 and having not made it past the first round since 2001, it's easy to understand the Raptors' urgency. Signing Gay to an extension before he is eligible to explore his options acts as fail-safe against him snubbing them in 2014 or even 2015.

What it doesn't do is guarantee they've got their hands on the player they've been desperately searching for.

Assuming Gay is willing to sign an extension this summer—his refusal to would present a whole other issue in itself—can the Raptors say, with 100 percent certainty, he has what it takes to be the face of their franchise? To lead them back to the postseason? To help them contend for a title?

If nothing else, Gay seems seduced by the opportunity to prove his worth as a formidable pillar. It's the very opportunity he spent six-plus years pining for in Memphis, but never genuinely received (via Spears):

Rudy Gay says the Memphis Grizzlies' new ownership didn't give him a shot to prove he was worth a multi-million dollar investment before it traded him in a three-team deal to the Toronto Raptors in January.

"You have to give me a chance to see if I'm worth that," Gay told Yahoo! Sports.

Gay averaged at least 18 points in his previous five seasons with Memphis, but the new regime in the small market didn't believe the forward with no All-Star appearance was worth paying $53.7 million over three seasons. Memphis also had two stellar big men in All-Star forward Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol while playing a half-court offense that didn't utilize Gay's athleticism.

Gay's mind is right. He spent the better part of the last two years being pushed out the door in Memphis, being shunned from the team he was once the focal point of. He seems likely to relish in the opportunity to prove those who vilified him to no end wrong.

As for whether he'll thrive when given a fair shake, that's a different story.

In his first 15 games played with the Raptors, the team is 8-7. Gay's 19.8 points per game leads the team and he's already hit two game-winners, effectively giving the Raptors the closer it arguably didn't even have in Bosh.

The forward also remains a dream in transition. His athletic prowess is rivaled by few and he runs the floor and soars through the air with the utmost of ease.

All's well in Canada then, right?

It's not that simple.

Gay's hardly the most efficient of scorers. He's shooting just 39 percent from the field since joining the Raptors and a deplorable 23.3 percent from deep. His 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 steals and adequate perimeter defense remains of value, but his numbers don't necessarily imply you're in the presence of a franchise pillar.

What we must remember is that while the Grizzlies' decision to move him was financially motivated (for the most part), they still moved him. Not Marc Gasol. Or Zach Randolph. Or even Mike Conley. But him.

Even after they distanced themselves from having to pay any taxes this season, they still moved him. They removed him from a championship contender in hopes that they would be able to make up for his absence.

What does that say about him? About his game?

Nothing good.

This could be one of those "one team's outcast is another team's savior" type situations, but it might not be. 

If Gay's numbers in Toronto hold for the rest of the season (not including his showing in Memphis), he'll be the only player in the NBA to have averaged more than 19 points per game while shooting under 40 percent from the field. That's hardly the genre of distinction players and teams languish for.

Color Gay one of the great mysteries of today's NBA. In so many regards, he's regrettably inefficient and unreliable. Then again, every time you look, he's scored 19 or 20 points a game.

The latter urges to believe in the star Gay's salary suggests he is. It implores us to place stock not in his field-goal percentage, but in other facts, like knowing the Raptors are both scoring more while allowing fewer points when he's on the floor.

Unlike some, I'm not ready to give up on Gay. And I'm nowhere near considering him to be in the same class of cornerstone-facades Monta Ellis is in. He can do so many different things with and without the ball that there's enough evidence to make a case for his place amongst other aristocratic talents.

The problem for the Raptors is that this "evidence" is all circumstantial. They haven't seen enough of him (since when is 15 games enough to make these types of decisions?) to render this type of a verdict, to legitimately justify this austere a commitment.

And when it comes to the livelihood, to the future of an entire franchise, the people in charge owe it to the team and the fans to make the right call. Especially a team like the Raptors, who have spent much of their existence toeing the line between mediocrity and discussion.

Should Toronto commit to Gay for another few years and he not pan out, there are few other routes to take. His contract would be among the most difficult to move and the Raptors would have no financial flexibility to cover up their miscue.

Toronto could also commit to Gay and see its investment pay off. Gay could be just the name to render Toronto a destination of interest, to bring out the best in a second-tier player like DeMar DeRozan. He could be everything the Raptors both want and need.

Or he could not. We just don't know, and neither do the Raptors. Not yet anyway.

Extending Gay after drawing conclusions from menial sample sizes is potentially detrimental, especially when said sample sizes don't definitively prove he's the right face for the future.

As unsettling as it may be to holster their ambitions, the Raptors must do just that—wait and see. Knowing Gay could potentially traipse his way to greener pastures in 2014 makes this a gamble, and his departure could prove to be a crippling loss.

But it wouldn't near as enfeebling as knowing they invested everything they had in the wrong player.


*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and unless otherwise noted.


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