Rudy Gay is having a breakout season, only no one has been able to see it. It’s not like his Memphis Grizzlies are one of the NBA’s bankable franchises, and when you add their 10-28 record into the equation (third-worst in the West), national-TV appearances and extended highlight packages on “NBA TV Daily” and “Sportscenter” have been hard to come by. Meanwhile, Rudy is averaging 19.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, showing off All-Star potential and forcing people to seriously question why the Rockets traded him on Draft Night for Shane Battier. Still trying to shed the labels put on him by critics back in college that he lacks a passion for the game and desire to win, Rudy is responding as best he can on the court: He knocked down a buzzer-beating game-winning three over Tim Duncan on Dec. 19, and more recently dropped 30 points on the Cavs in an overtime loss on Jan. 15 — his seventh 30-point game of the season. I talked to Rudy yesterday after Grizzlies’ practice about his team, his season and answering his doubters.
Dime: It’s not like the Grizzlies came into this season with great expectations, but you still hoped to be better than 10-28 at this point. How would you analyze the season so far?
Rudy Gay: It may not seem like it, but we’re taking some big strides as far as individual people getting better. Once a couple of things fall into place, we’ll be pretty good. But we all know we have a lot of work to do.
Dime: And it doesn’t help that you’re playing in maybe the best division in the League, right? You’ve got Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and New Orleans to deal with.
RG: It’s tough. We have a lot of great players in the League, and especially in our division. We matchup pretty good with them, though, I think. We could be one of those teams that’s up there, but it’s gonna take a while.
Dime: I don’t know if you believe in moral victories, but are there any positive things you can take from the last couple of games? You went into overtime with the Cavs and lost by one point to the Lakers on the road.
RG: Yeah, you can get something positive out of it. Although we wanted those wins, we had a good chance at both of them … sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way. A couple things go differently and we would have won those games. But, you know, taking some great teams down to the wire shows that we can play with anybody.
Dime: Your rookie year was solid, but this year you’re really turning into a star. Did you do anything differently in the offseason to prepare for Year 2 in the NBA?
RG: Nothing different, I just worked out a lot. I put in a lot of work trying to get better. I think it’s just me progressing; I learned a lot from last year. I think I’m a better shooter than I was last year.
Dime: Are you more confident on the court?
RG: I’m confident all the time ’cause I’m a basketball player and that’s just the kind of person I am. If I wasn’t confident, somebody would take my job. You have to be confident to know that whenever your number is called you’ll be able to produce.
Dime: Do you think you’ve answering the questions that surrounded you around Draft time in ’06?
RG: I think I’m still answering them. There were a lot of good guys picked ahead of me, and a lot of good guys picked after me. It’s still gonna take time to prove what kind of player I am, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job showing I should be here. I still think it’ll take a little more time to show everything.
Dime: I heard you were trying to get into the Dunk Contest. Have you heard anything from the League about that?
RG: No, I haven’t heard anything yet. I tried to get in last year, too, but I don’t know … I guess they didn’t think I could do it or something. This year I think I have a good enough resume — I’ve had a couple good dunks this year. Hopefully I’ll get in.
Dime: Who are some younger players that are impressing you around the League?
RG: Brandon Roy is having a great season. What he’s doing with that team is unbelievable. Chris Paul, I mean, he should be an All-Star this year. And who isn’t Kevin Durant impressing?
Dime: Since the Grizzlies aren’t really on national TV, who are some players on the team that get underrated because no one sees them?
RG: Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry and Hakim Warrick are very underrated. Mike, he’s someone who can really help us. He missed a lot of games when he was hurt, but he’s grown up so fast you can tell he really paid attention to what was going on while he was out. Kyle, he’s our motor. And Hakim, you can put him anywhere on the floor and he’ll find ways to score.
Dime: As someone who sees them at work every day, evaluate Mike Miller and Pau Gasol.
RG: The amount of work Mike Miller puts into his game is unbelievable. He practices so hard, and you can see it when he goes out in the games and shoots so fluidly. Pau, he’s 7-1, real quick, and his arms are very long. He brings matchup problems no matter who we’re playing. He’s a very gifted player.
Dime: Do you still follow UConn?
RG: Yeah, definitely. We have so many Big East guys on our team — me, Hakim, Kyle, Andre Brown — you always when what’s going on. When your school is doing good, they won’t say anything. If not, they’ll come in talking about “We beat you.” That’s when you worry.
Dime: What are your goals going forward through the rest of the season?
RG: Just to improve and get better every game. We can learn from this kind of season and improve on it for the future. As a team, we can’t go anywhere but up.