by David Cassilo / @dcassilo

One of the hardest things for an athlete to come to terms with is that a team can win without him. Last season, Rudy Gay learned just that while watching his Memphis Grizzlies upset the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the Playoffs.

Nobody is saying that the Grizzlies are a better team without Gay, but as Memphis looks to build on its historic season, it will be Gay’s job to fit in and keep the good times rolling.

Fresh off signing a five-year, $82 million contract with the Grizzlies in July, Rudy Gay looked like a strong return on investment last season, averaging career highs in every major statistical category except points per game. But an injury to the shoulder on Gay’s non-shooting arm cut his season short in February.

What seemed like a blow to any Playoff chances Memphis had turned out to be anything but. As Gay watched from the sidelines, Sam Young and Shane Battier filled in admirably and Memphis went 15-10 to finish the regular season with its young star out of the lineup.

Gay, who will be fully healthy to start next season, now must hope he doesn’t disrupt the team’s chemistry from last season’s Playoff run when he returns. If his comeback goes smoothly, Memphis should be able to take another step forward as it will be adding an All-Star-caliber player to the team that upset San Antonio.

Since taking off in his second season in the NBA, Gay has been a model of consistency. Over the last four seasons he’s averaged between 18.9 and 20.1 ppg each season and between 5.6 and 6.2 rpg.

Gay’s first return to game action since suffering his injury came on Sept. 21, when he tallied 17 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists in an Impact Basketball game.

On October 1, he played in Chris Paul’s exhibition charity game. While the defense leaves something to be desired in these games, it was still a promising sign that Gay finished with 38 points.

Slotting in a healthy Gay to the lineup could make Memphis a legitimate contender for the Western Conference title next season. While the team is deep with Battier, Young, O.J. Mayo and Tony Allen to play the wing positions, Gay’s offensive potential is much higher than any of the other four.

While Gay’s numbers are strong, the consensus around the League is that he has barely scraped his potential. He is still just 25 years old, and one of the highest-ranked players on this list never to have made an All-Star game.

Everything points to this year being the one where he makes the team. This is the best supporting cast that Gay has ever had. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol will take the attention off Gay, and Mike Conley Jr’s progression will only help Gay increase his scoring.

While Gay missed out on last season’s run, he can be the reason the team goes further in the 2012 NBA Playoffs. An exciting and young team, the Grizzlies are poised for success, and Gay, the longest-tenured of the starting five, can appreciate it the most after many years of meaningless basketball.

SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2011
RankPlayerTeamPositionPos. Rank
50Luol DengBullsSF8
49Andrew BogutBucksC7
48Ray AllenCelticsSG9
47Marc GasolGrizzliesC6
46David WestHornetsPF15
45Kevin MartinRocketsSG8
44Andrew BynumLakersC5
43Brandon JenningsBucksPG11
42Lamar OdomLakersPF14
41Gerald WallaceBlazersSF7
40Brook LopezNetsC4
39Joakim NoahBullsC3
38Carlos BoozerBullsPF13
37Kevin GarnettCelticsPF12
36Eric GordonClippersSG7
35Tony ParkerSpursPG10
34Andre Iguodala76ersSG6
33Al JeffersonJazzPF11
32Al HorfordHawksC2
31Stephen CurryWarriorsPG9
30Tim DuncanSpursPF10
29Josh SmithHawksPF9
28Manu GinobiliSpursSG5
27Tyreke EvansKingsPG8
26Rudy GayGrizzliesSF6

Notes
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’11-12 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Maurice Bobb, Shannon Booher, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Jon Jaques, Eldon Khorshidi, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Quinn Peterson, Dave Schnur, Abe Schwadron, Dan Shapiro, Irv Soonachan, Todd Spehr, Tzvi Twersky, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Ben York.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.