The Next Big Thing?

After playing a supporting role as a UConn freshman, Spalding alum Rudy Gay might be ready for the spotlight


STORRS, CONN. -- His open jumper did not go down, but Rudy Gay hustled back and helped force a turnover.

After the next whistle, Gay pantomimed the shooting motion. He squared his shoulders, got his right hand under an imaginary ball, bent his knees, pointed his right elbow at a distant rim and let fire.

It was a fluid, textbook practice during a break in an exhibition game except for one thing: Gay forgot to follow through and flick his wrist.

A part of Gay resists the lead role at the University of Connecticut, because the 6-foot-9 sophomore is still growing, into his game and his body.

There were times when he had to spot-shave his chin to satisfy the dress code at Archbishop Spalding High, but a razor has never touched Gay's sideburns. He has a baby face and a build that leaves the NBA scouts breathless. His wingspan is that of a man 7-1, and Gay weighs 220 pounds, 15 more than he did a year ago.

"I didn't have to buy new clothes," Gay said, "but the ones I got last year fit a lot better."

Measure one of your hands, from the base to the tip of the middle finger. For Gay, that distance is a whopping 9 1/2 inches, but a basketball fits a lot neater in those hands than stardom does on him.

"I can honestly say that the most limitless player to ever come out of this program is probably going to be Rudy Gay," Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. "He's got length, athleticism; he can run. He has good values, a self-awareness and personality that doesn't let him get overwhelmed by anything. As he matures, the world could be his oyster. He can accomplish some incredible things."

A bright future

Calhoun runs the only men's college basketball program that has won two NCAA titles under the same coach within the past 13 seasons. Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton have gone on to fine NBA careers, and Ben Gordon, Caron Butler and Emeka Okafor likely will, too. Calhoun wants Gay to aspire to play like the guys at the next level and stop blending in with the ones who are still at Connecticut.

Center Josh Boone and wing Rashad Anderson started for the 2004 NCAA champions. Denham Brown turns 23 in January. Ed Nelson already is 23.

"It's hard coming in here, taking someone's spot, especially when you're 19 and they're 22," Gay said. "Any other team, that would have been a problem, but it hasn't been a problem, fitting in with these guys."

Actually, he finished his freshman season as an 18-year-old. The NBA designed its new rules to keep teenagers out, but come June, when Gay figures to be one of the top selections in the 2006 draft, he'll still be 19.

Class of '04 company

In two minutes, Gay goes from laughing about a freshman year, in which he "was so homesick," to sounding wistful at the mention of Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston and Marvin Williams, his good friends from the prep Class of 2004. Gay knows that the quickest way to join them in the NBA is to assert himself.

He was Connecticut's fourth-leading scorer last season, when the Big East Conference tournament champions lost in the second round of the NCAAs to North Carolina State. Gay didn't take as many shots as Charlie Villanueva and acquiesced to the veterans around him, forcing so few three-pointers that he shot better beyond the arc than he did inside it.

There is some irony in the knock that Gay is too nice a guy, because Connecticut could have used more of the same over the summer. A.J. Price, the Huskies' best point guard prospect, will sit out the entire season for his role in the theft of some laptop computers. Marcus Williams, who led the Big East in assists last season, was also fingered in that incident and won't be eligible until the end of the first semester.

The February and March Huskies won't be the same team that Arizona, Gonzaga, Maryland, Michigan State and everyone else will see at the EA Sports Maui Invitational, which begins today. That's why it's vital that Gay step up, immediately. Last season, Calhoun nagged Boone, a 6-11 native of Mount Airy, about shooting more. Now, he's calling out Gay.

"We want him to get some 30-point games," Calhoun said. "You hit a flat game, you need somebody to make plays, and we've already designated Rudy as that guy, because he's so good. He can get his own shot anytime he wants, he just has to learn how to do that. If he had some arrogance, it would help, but he has none. There's no edge to Rudy, at least none that I've detected."

Popular with coach

Butler, who learned how to play at a reform school, is one of Calhoun's all-time favorites. The coach also admires Juan Dixon and Carmelo Anthony, predecessors of Gay's in the Baltimore Catholic League, who overcame hardscrabble upbringings to become the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four.

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