The X-Factor 

Can Rudy Gay become a star for the Grizzlies? And just how good can this year's team be?

The day former Grizzlies general manager Jerry West arrived in Memphis, he stated that the team needed star-caliber players. He inherited an emerging one in Pau Gasol but then spent the next several years — intentionally or not — packing the roster with well-compensated role players. That put the Grizzlies in the playoffs, but it also put a cap on the team's upside.

This season could be when Gasol finally gets to share court space with a player with commensurate abilities. And, if that happens, it's likely to come in the form of Rudy Gay, a so-far underappreciated parting gift West procured in his final summer in charge, at the steep price of fan favorite (but role player) Shane Battier. What kind of leap Gay takes in his second season will be a key determinant to not only how good the Grizzlies can be but how much optimism the team can generate about its long-term potential.

For a rookie already suspected of being a little fragile, Gay was put into an awfully tough situation a year ago. As if replacing the beloved Battier wasn't enough to live up to, West overcompensated in the P.R. department by immediately proclaiming Gay a star and then threw the 20-year-old to a veteran-loving coach who resented his very presence. At one point early last season, Coach Mike Fratello was heard to complain that he couldn't put Gay in the game because the kid didn't know how to play, ignoring the fact that teaching Gay and other young players should have been priority number-one last season. As a result, Gay had a mildly disappointing rookie season, albeit one that placed him third in the Rookie of the Year race.

A year later, Gay finds himself in a much better environment. Coming into the league, the expectations some had of Gay as a perimeter scorer didn't match the skills he brought to the court. Gay was thought by some to have the potential to be a Vince Carter type, but after a year it seems clear that his future isn't as a dominant wing scorer but as a dynamic, do-everything forward in the mold of such established or emerging NBA stars as Phoenix's Shawn Marion, Charlotte's Gerald Wallace, or Atlanta's Josh Smith.

New coach Marc Iavaroni, who had Marion in Phoenix, seems to understand this and is grooming Gay to play the small forward and rotate into the paint as what Iavaroni refers to as a "Phoenix 4," using Gay as an ostensible power forward to speed up the game, improve three-point shooting, and give Gay better opportunities to get to the rim.

This preseason, the Grizzlies have typically been at their best — and most exciting — with these small-ball lineups, which Iavaroni has regularly used to close or put away games.

A 6'9", with incredibly long arms and elite athleticism, Gay is already a disruptive force defensively if not yet a great straight-up defender. He racks up steals and blocks at high rates and repeatedly gets his hands on the ball defensively — deflections that slow down an opponent's offense even when not leading to a turnover.

But those physical tools still haven't manifested in great rebounding, where Gay's rebound rates have been fine for a small forward but not good enough to make the small-ball alignment anything like a full-time option. The reason Smith, Wallace, and particularly Marion can play power forward as a primary position despite small-forward size and skills is that each player rebounds like a power forward. Iavaroni and Gay both acknowledge that Gay has to get better on the boards if the Grizzlies want to make significant, regular use of these lineups.

The one area where Gay already has an advantage over these other dynamic "Phoenix 4" types is as a shooter. Gay has a smooth, sound, high-arching stroke and connected on an impressive 36 percent of his three-pointers as a rookie, a significantly better percentage than these comparison players and a percentage that could be on the rise. Gay has shot better than 40 percent from three-point range in the preseason.

While Gay will likely never be a dominant off-the-dribble scorer, he does need to significantly improve the shaky decision-making he showed as a rookie, where a combination of uncertainty and weak ball-handling too often conspired to cripple Gay's game and the Grizzlies' offense with it. When isolated on the perimeter as a rookie, Gay had a tendency to freeze up, hover with the dribble, and settle for flinging a contested, long two-pointer at the rim — the worst shot in all of basketball and not one that Gay hit with much regularity last season despite taking so many of them.

This shot hasn't disappeared from Gay's game in the preseason, but it has become much less common, with the young forward generally making quicker, stronger, more sound decisions with the ball. His passing — both catalytic passes to set up teammates for shots and simple passes to find the open man when his own offense is shut off — has been dramatically better. And Gay seems to be making more of an effort to get into the paint for closer, more aggressive jumpers even when he can't get all the way to the rim. He's continued to struggle when forced to take more than one dribble, but, with his size and athleticism, he can cover an awful lot of ground off a single bounce.

All of this has resulted in a level of consistency in the preseason that bodes well for Gay, who's averaging 20 points per game in NBA preseason games.

Gay should be the new coaching staff's pet project; he has the tools to be an all-star player, and, despite a sense of disappointment some Grizzlies fans had with his rocky rookie year, Gay hasn't done anything to suggest he can't be that level of player.

click to enlarge Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI

New Style/Old Players

Gay's versatility and promise — his speed and explosiveness in transition, his three-point shooting, his disruptive ability defensively — represent a lot of what Iavaroni seems to want Grizzlies basketball to look like.

Iavaroni comes into his first head coaching job with a remarkably diverse resume, and rather than expecting a carbon copy of the run-and-gun Phoenix style, fans should probably expect a blend. From his time on the bench with Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni, Iavaroni seems to have taken a commitment to early offense, to getting into transition quickly and finding shots before the defense has a chance to get set; a desire for quick, dynamic point guards (thus the drafting of Mike Conley); and an interest in playing the aforementioned smaller lineups, utilizing Gay as his "Phoenix 4."

On the other hand, Iavaroni — who has also been an understudy with more traditional, defensive-oriented coaches Pat Riley and former Griz coach Fratello — has stressed defense even more, which is appropriate when you're taking over what was the league's worst defensive team last season.

Iavaroni still doesn't have great defensive personnel, but the return of point guard Kyle Lowry from injury and the addition of center Darko Milicic should help. More than anything, coaching emphasis and the sense of purpose that that will instill should help to improve the defense significantly.

Offensively, Iavaroni is almost certain to run more through the post than Phoenix has. The presence of Gasol demands that. Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire may be the more dominating player, but he's also more of a face-up scorer — and a pure finisher not able to or asked to create shots for others.

Gasol can run the floor and can certainly face up, but he is more of a classic post player. Gasol is also one of the best passing big men in the game. Given his assortment of skills on the offensive end, it would be unwise not to run a significant amount of the team's halfcourt offense through him, either by getting him the ball on the block or in the high post, where he can set teammates up by seeing over the defense.

Though it was obscured by poor team performance and his own trade demand, Gasol may have played his best basketball once he hit his stride last season. His rebound rate, which seemed to have leveled off, spiked.

More importantly, Gasol came into the season with slightly adjusted shooting mechanics, which led to a significant increase in his jump-shooting percentages — from 37 percent in the 2005-06 season to 45 percent last season. Gasol's free-throw percentage also rebounded from 69 percent the prior season to a career-norm 75 percent. Both of these improvements made Gasol a more efficient and prolific scorer than ever before.

If this improved shooting carries over into this season, it will make Gasol a deadly triple threat offensively — as a passer, shooter, and driver — especially when operating out of the high post, an area where he may be used more this season than in the past.

If a full season from Gasol and the emergence of Gay can push Mike Miller to third in the team's pecking order, it'll be better for the team.

But Miller, who responded well to increased demands a year ago, doesn't need to play 39 minutes a night again and will never be a viable isolation scorer.

Who's on Point?

If Gasol, Gay, and Miller are likely to be the constants for this year's Grizzlies team, every other role on a suddenly deep team carries a degree of uncertainty, starting with the point-guard spot, where the storyline of the preseason is likely to be an active issue all season long.

What's emerged in the preseason in this three-way battle is that veteran Damon Stoudamire is the present, rookie Mike Conley is the future, and second-year man Kyle Lowry is the spark.

Lowry, who had been the team's most effective player before he broke his wrist early last season, has perhaps been the strongest player in the preseason with his defensive energy, strong penetration, and rebounding from the backcourt.

Conley has the best speed, court vision, and passing ability of the trio. He'll be the best trigger-man for an uptempo attack in time and is already the best penetrate-and-dish point guard on the team. But Conley's preseason performance has made it clear that he's not quite ready to run a team and needs significant work on his on-ball defense, shooting, and finishing ability. He's shown he can get to the rim but still has to adjust to making shots over the bigger, more athletic frontcourt defenders in the NBA.

With Iavaroni seeming to prefer Lowry off the bench and with Conley not quite ready, that leaves the starting job — at least initially — to Stoudamire, who is now two years removed from knee surgery and got stronger as the preseason wore on. Stoudamire's size and declining athleticism could be a recipe for defensive disaster, while his relative lack of speed makes him less than ideal for the style Iavaroni has said he wants to play. But as a short-term answer that will allow the team to bring Conley along slowly, look for Stoudamire to get the opening call (with Lowry perhaps playing more minutes and closing out games) to start the season.

What will J.C. do?

While Milicic was the big-money signing this off-season and Conley has the long-term promise, the most significant addition to the team this season could end up being Juan Carlos Navarro, Gasol's compadre on the Spanish national team whom the Grizzlies acquired via trade this summer.

There's reason to be skeptical of Navarro's impact. For starters, the majority of veteran foreign guards who have tried to make the switch to the NBA in mid-career over the past decade or so have failed. For every success story, such as San Antonio's Manu Ginobili or Toronto's Jose Calderon (Navarro's backcourt mate on the Spanish national team), there are a couple of flameouts along the lines of such obscurities as Sarunas Jasikevicius or Arvydas Macijauskas. And, defensively, despite giving good effort, Navarro's lack of size and strength will be a big problem some nights.

But Navarro has been the revelation of the preseason with his deadly outside shooting and crafty playmaking ability. Navarro is likely to serve as the team's sixth man this season, and, though he doesn't have as much NBA upside, he could have an impact similar to what Chicago's Ben Gordon had as a rookie a couple of years ago, when he was a contender for both the rookie of the year and sixth man of the year awards.

Like Gordon, Navarro is a streaky combo guard who can make shots all over the floor. He'll have games this season where he'll get hot and roll off 15-point quarters. On other nights, when his shot isn't falling, his defense may keep him off the floor. One of the reasons Lowry, despite being perhaps the team's most effective point guard, is likely to come off the bench is to maximize his minutes alongside Navarro, where Lowry's ability to guard bigger players allows Iavaroni to assign Navarro to a team's least dynamic guard regardless of position.

Navarro will also be helped greatly if the Grizzlies can force a fast tempo. The more scattered a game becomes, the easier it will be for Navarro to float around for open looks and the harder it will be for opponents to isolate against him defensively.

The Remains

This year's Grizzlies team promises to be the deepest since Hubie Brown's 10-man rotation, but it doesn't look like Iavaroni has much interest in using Brown's substitution philosophy, instead citing a more conventional 8- or 9-man rotation as more likely.

With Gasol, Gay, Miller, and Navarro joined by two point guards (presumably Stoudamire and Lowry giving way to Conley and Lowry at some point), that leaves only two or three regular spots and plenty of talented players to compete for them.

This depth could be a blessing and a curse: Good players riding the pine could foster unhappiness, but the depth will allow the team to cope with injuries better than it did a year ago.

In the frontcourt, newly signed Milicic, resurgent Stromile Swift, and third-year forward Hakim Warrick are competing for a starter's role alongside Gasol and a consistent spot in the rotation. There may not be room for all three players, but it's hard to imagine Milicic's size not ensuring him a spot somewhere in the rotation.

A lower-profile battle is occurring between swingmen Casey Jacobsen and Tarence Kinsey for consistent spot minutes, with Jacobsen's superior three-point shooting likely winning out over Kinsey's better all-around game.

Looking Ahead

In a Western Conference that has seen an exodus — via trade, free-agency, or injury — of high-level talent from low-level teams, the Grizzlies are looking up. A double-digit win increase over last year's artificially low 22 wins seems a given. If the team stays healthy and some of the young players and new additions gel, another 10 wins on top of that is a distinct possibility. That would push the Grizzlies over 40 wins and into playoff contention. Fans shouldn't expect that to happen, but it isn't out of the question.

More important may be what this season suggests in terms of the roster's long-term viability as a future contender and Iavaroni's ability to foster an exciting, winning style of basketball. In that regard, the Grizzlies may well go as Gay and the young point guards do. Coming off last season's disaster, there's real hope for this team's future, maybe for the first time in several years.

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