by Jeremy Bauman / @JBauman13

If you’ve already copped issue number 142 of SLAM, you know how I feel about Rudy Gay. In this year’s version of SLAMonline’s Top 50, Gay has climbed 16 spots, placing him near the middle of these rankings. And although his statistics didn’t increase at a substantial rate this year, they disRudy Gayplayed the consistency that the small forward has shown since his second year in the NBA.

Consistency is something that employers in every field of work yearn for, and Rudy proved that he could be a consistent force despite playing under unstable and inconsistent surroundings.

After spending time with him and writing the story for the mag on him, one thing that really opened my eyes was that the instability in Memphis would have caused other superstars around the League to throw a hissy fit, yet the situation that Rudy has been plagued with over his first five seasons was barely publicized (by Gay himself) and he took all of the tough days on and off the court in stride, something that other players have a tough time doing at such a young age.

Kobe Bryant won titles early in his career, for instance, and still wasn’t happy out in LA.

Carmelo has been to the playoffs every single year he’s been in the NBA, but he wants out of Denver.

Rudy, on the other hand, just signed a maximum deal to continue playing for the small-market Memphis Grizzlies even though they haven’t made the playoffs yet during his tenure with the team.

My point is this: Rudy is a humble guy who desperately wants to prove that the maximum contract that he just inked this summer is indicative of the type of player that he is on the court, and not just an extension that provides financial security. He wants to win in this League and show that his skills will translate into team success, something that he began to show this summer playing for the United States in the FIBA World Basketball Championships.

With his smooth mid-range game, strength going to the rim, understanding of what the team was trying to accomplish, awareness of his role, and the versatility that he brings to both ends of the basketball court, Gay proved to be a perfect compliment for Team USA off the bench. No, he didn’t dominate the games like Kevin Durant (who can), but he showed that he understood his role and that the most important thing is winning. His averages of 7 points, 3 assists and .8 assists in just over 13 minutes per game will hardly knock the socks off you, but the patience and understanding of the higher team goal showed that it was all about the team for Rudy.

With regards to his role in the NBA, however, things are going to be a little different than they were with Team USA. After inking that fresh $80 million contract, Rudy has officially become “The Man” for the Grizzlies. After a 40-42 season last year the long time bottom-dwelling Grizzlies have a young core that remains intact and has become a legitimate threat to make the playoffs. But the guy that has to get them over the hump and into that stage is the guy whom they just laid the money out on the table for.

Rudy Gay has all of the tools to deliver for the fledgling yet potentially upstart Memphis franchise. He knows that he has to figure out how to put them together, how he become the reliable force that Jerry West originally saw when he traded for him on Draft Day in ’06. In reference to what Jerry West originally saw in him, Rudy stated “I don’t know. I think that’s probably one of the problems. Once I realize that and am able to dominate, I’ll be exactly what he wants me to be.”

If Rudy Gay, one of the most athletic, versatile and skilled wings in the League puts it all together on both ends of the floor, he could ultimately move himself into the upper echelon of this list at some point in his career.

But potential is scary—there are athletic and versatile wings that don’t ever “figure it out.” And that is why Rudy is ranked No. 28 and not No. 8, for example, at this point in his career. He has proven that he has the upside to be a special player in the L, now he has to prove that he has what it takes to keep improving year after year while being the face of the franchise in Memphis.

Ray AllenCelticsSG50361110
Gilbert ArenasWizardsSG4934109
Lamar OdomLakersPF48331410
John WallWizardsPG47NR13NR
OJ MayoGrizzliesSG4646912
Al HorfordHawksC45NR6NR
Jason KiddMavsPG44451210
Joakim NoahBullsC43NR5NR
LaMarcus AldridgeBlazersPF42391312
David WestHornetsPF4131128
Monta EllisWarriorsSG40NR8NR
Andrew BogutBucksC39NR4NR
Yao MingRocketsC38NR3NR
Brandon JenningsBucksPG37NR11NR
Zach RandolphGrizzliesPF36NR11NR
Stephen CurryWarriorsPG35NR10NR
David LeeWarriorsPF34NR10NR
Brook LopezNetsC33NR2NR
Gerald WallaceBobcatsSF32NR6NR
Manu GinobiliSpursSG312978
Tony ParkerSpursPG301593
Kevin GarnettCelticsPF291393
Rudy GayGrizzliesSF284459

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’10-11 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jeremy Bauman, Maurice Bobb, Erildas Budraitis, Sean Ceglinsky, Ben Collins, Bryan Crawford, Sandy Dover, Adam Figman, Manny Maduakolam, Eddie Maisonet, Ryne Nelson, Doobie Okon, Ben Osborne, Charles Peach, Branden Peters, Quinn Peterson, David Schnur, Todd Spehr, Kyle Stack, Adam Sweeney, Dennis Tarwood, Tracy Weissenberg, Lang Whitaker, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.