When players run out for warm-ups, there's always a small handful that require some extra work from trainers on the floor. Rudy Gay is one of them. Before the Spurs' game Friday night against the Magic he's taking a little longer than the rest. That's because the Spurs are trying to make sure he's healthy and in the best shape possible.
As they should.
The Achilles injury Gay is trying to come back from has ruined careers, and the players who do manage to keep playing rarely look the same. This is why Gay's quick return and immediate solid play has been so surprising.
Through five games, Gay is averaging 12 points and four rebounds a game with the Spurs while sporting an on/off net rating of 5.5. He's shooting 52 percent from the field and has a true shooting percentage of 58 percent. Get him into the paint, where San Antonio likes to do its best work, and he thrives:
As you can see in the chart above, Gay has been flourishing in the paint, and especially under the basket. The Spurs are better offensively with Gay, and the team trusts he'll figure out the defense. He's providing a great spark for San Antonio off the bench, but what's more impressive is how quickly he's returned from the injury.
"I was shocked when they said he was gonna come back for camp." Gregg Popovich said about Gay's return. "I was thinking November or something like that. When they told me he was coming to camp I thought they were crazy. I was relatively paranoid letting him play part of a practice, this or that. I still ask him 'How do you feel?' 'Was that too many minutes last night?' and he keeps saying he's fine. All the doctor people say that he's great so the answer is yeah, I am surprised."
"Obviously it takes awhile." Danny Green told CBS Sports. "I don't know what it's like to come back from something like that, but he's bounced back and adjusted very well. Not playing for so long he has to get used to playing again, but I think he's playing very well for coming off an injury like that."
Gay suffered the Achilles injury in January, but despite the short turnaround he's feeling perfectly fine and is ready to put in the work to contribute to a winning team.
"You have to put the work in and come back to how you want to be." Gay said. "Obviously there are ups and downs in rehab and in an NBA season. You just have to limit them."
Gay hasn't looked limited at all by his injury. Offensively he's still bullying his way to the rim, using length and athleticism to make defenders uncomfortable, and asserting himself. He gives San Antonio another offensive threat and on the defensive end he's beginning to learn the new system.
"He's done a wonderful job," Popovich said. "He could always score. We're just trying to get him into the system defensively and understand how we play. That'll take him a little bit more time, but he's willing, and that's good."
"Just another offensive threat for us." Green said. "Defensively he's picking up the slack, he's learning, doing decently. But offensively he's just another threat and a little more versatility on the floor."
When Gay has the San Antonio defense down, along with his offensive capabilities, he could find himself as one of the Spurs' most important players at the end of the season. He's already playing an important role off the bench and it's expected time with the team will make him better. He already has the respect of his opponents.
"He was always athletic, he had long arms, and he was very skilled" longtime veteran Arron Afflalo told CBS Sports. "So he had a great combination of size and athleticism and skills that made him a very difficult player to guard.
"I'm happy for him. That injury is a tough injury to come back from, especially as you get a little bit older in age and he came back. Not only [is he] playing well but he recovered from that injury very well. I'm excited for him. I know how hungry he was to get back and play at a high level and he's doing great."
The Spurs may have taken a loss to the Magic, but that's just a bump in the road of a long season. The expectation is they'll be a contender in the West, and a healthy Gay will only help. There will be key moments when they'll need him and he's going to step up. Considering the injury he's coming back from, those kind of heroics would be even more impressive.