If you've watched the Memphis Grizzlies recently, you may have forgotten that they're playing without their best player. It's astounding how far they've gotten without franchise-building-block Rudy Gay, but all that does is make the Grizzlies' achievement all the more impressive. It doesn't take anything away from Gay, which is just one reason why he's perhaps the ultimate sleeper for the upcoming 2011-12 NBA season.
Gay has all the makings of the perfect under-the-radar fantasy stud. For one thing, he plays in Memphis, and anyone who's ever been in an auction draft knows that preferential treatment is always given to the big market Yankees and Lakers and Cowboys of the world, while players on the Royals and Bills and Grizzlies are likely to slip through the cracks because of how unpublicized they are. Sometimes it isn't even about bias. A lot of times, a fantasy owner may pass on someone in a small market because they're utterly unfamiliar with them, and don't know them well enough to make an educated assessment of them -- something that's never true of a player who's always on TV, like Alex Rodriguez.
(For instance, people were losing their minds when Derek Jeter's batting average dropped to .250, but at the same time, Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez were barely over the Mendoza Line, and no one on ESPN even talked about it, even though they're both better players than Jeter. But I digress...)
Another blessing in disguise for Gay's value is the season-ending shoulder injury he suffered in February, the result of which has him watching his team's current playoff success from the sideline. Any player coming off a major injury is liable of being a risk, and because his team is doing so well without him, people may undervalue his importance to the team. And even the ones who don't may pass on him because he burnt them last year; no one likes seeing their investment go the final two months of the year in a cast, when they could be helping their fantasy team.
Not only is there little reason to worry about Gay, who at 24 years old is a full year younger than LeBron, his stats make him more than worth the little risk he presents. Prior to getting hurt, Gay was averaging 19.8 points per game on 47.1% field-goal shooting, 39.6% three-point shooting, 80.5% free-throw shooting, with 6.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 three-pointers per contest. Those are excellent numbers for a shooting guard, particularly on the defensive side. Gay joins Dwyane Wade as the only guards who can give you 20 points, 6 rebounds, a steal and a block per game, and considering how much you'd have to divvy up to get D-Wade, Gay is a suitable and affordable substitute.
Gay is also an enviable player in that he hasn't yet reached his peak. His percentages, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks were all career highs last year, and he wasn't that far off from his career-high in scoring either (20.1 per game in 2008). The only category Gay has fallen off in lately is in three-pointers made. In 2008, under the fast-paced coaching of Marc Iavaroni, who had spent the previous few seasons as an assistant to Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix, Gay made 134 three's, good for 1.7 a game. Last year, under Lionel Hollins, that rate was down to 1.1 per game, though it's hardly a depreciation of value when he exceeded in virtually every other category.
In short, Gay is someone who you'll totally forget until his name comes up on the draft board. Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and possibly even Mike Conley will get more publicity than Gay, and considering that Memphis is in a small market to begin with, that should allow Gay to be a tremendous value option. Of course, it's not impossible that Gay could wind up on another team to start the '11-12 season. Memphis hasn't exactly floundered without him, and there are rumors as recently as today that he could wind up in Philadelphia for Andre Iguodala. Hypothetically, Gay would still retain much if not all of his value in Philly; in fact, it might actually be better for him, as he'd no longer have to compete with Randolph, Gasol, Conley and O.J. Mayo for points. The only difference would be that in Philadelphia, his presence would hardly be inconspicuous and he'd no longer be nearly as affordable. But until that happens, keep a close eye on Gay for next season.