MINNEAPOLIS — Chelsea Gray is matchup-proof. There’s no solution for a point guard bigger and stronger than most wings, who can also shoot, pass, drive, post up or nail a step-back jumper over the top of somebody as the clock winds down.
But somewhat lost in the larger conversation due to the tight one-through-eight playoff race the Los Angeles Sparks are in the middle of this season is the fact that the All-WNBA point guard on the team that has been to the last two WNBA Finals is just 25 years old, still very much on the upswing of her career.
But as successful as she has been so early on, Gray is still focused on getting better, even in the middle of the 2018 WNBA All-Star weekend in Minneapolis.
”I think it’s always important to strive to get better,” Gray told Silver Screen and Roll. “There’s always something that you can get better at offensively or defensively or just even the mindset — learning how to communicate with teammates, be a leader, things like that.”
Still playing on her rookie-scale contract, Gray has now racked up two All-Star Game appearances, an All-WNBA nod and a WNBA championship. Then there are the numerous crunch time performances, many of which have come at the expense of the rival Minnesota Lynx — 11-straight points in the second half of Game 5 of the 2016 Finals, a buzzer-beater to win Game 1 of the 2017 Finals, the game-winning layup in the 2018 season opener in Minnesota.
Even those that have been watching Gray and the Sparks closely since their 2016 championship run may still have some trouble wrapping their heads around the seeming immediacy of her rise to stardom. WNBA diehards and casual fans alike likely have tossed around the same question in some form: How did this all happen so quickly?
”We told her [after the Sparks acquired Gray in a 2016 draft-day trade] that she could be and would be one of the best guards in the league. I won’t say that we knew it would happen this soon, but we knew it was going to happen,” teammate Candace Parker told Silver Screen and Roll over All-Star weekend. “I always tell her, ‘This is where you’re supposed to be. This is how it’s supposed to be.’”
Gray’s current status in the league did not come easy. In fact, Gray said in The Players’ Tribune that “just a few years [before I was traded to the Sparks], I had been pretty sure that I’d never play basketball again.” A dislocated kneecap ended her junior season at Duke. She suffered a fracture kneecap partway through her senior season. Gray did not expect to be invited to attend the 2014 WNBA Draft, but despite her faltering confidence, the Connecticut Sun selected Gray with the No. 11 overall pick.
Still, her pro career was very much still up in the air.
But she fought back, returning to play in all 34 games as a reserve in 2015 for the Sun after missing the 2014 season to rehab. The following offseason, Gray was the centerpiece of a trade that sent her to Los Angeles so that Connecticut could move up to select Jonquel Jones with the No. 6 overall pick. Earlier this season, ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel pegged the Jones-Gray deal as the best in WNBA history in terms of being beneficial for both teams. (Jones, too, earned All-WNBA honors last season.)
Gray started all 42 regular season and playoff games in 2017 for the Sparks after starting just one game in her first two seasons in the league. She finished the 2017 regular season second in minutes played and led the league in three-point percentage (48.2% on 110 attempts).
Gray may well put herself in a position to make another All-WNBA team by season’s end. She is creating even more offense for her teammates this season, as through 26 games, Gray has assisted on 27.5 percent of her team’s made baskets. That mark is up from 21.6 percent last season, per Basketball Reference. (Gray’s usage rate is also up to 22.3 percent from 2017’s 19.3 percent mark.)
On the court, Gray’s playmaking paired with her ability to score from all over the floor forces opponents to make tough decisions on a nightly basis in game-planning for the Sparks. Gray utilizes her size, strength, handle and change of pace to create matchup nightmares whether she’s operating out of the pick and roll, in isolation, or out of the post.
Opposing teams have responded by throwing their best wing defender — including the likes of Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner, Seattle’s Alysha Clark, and Minnesota’s Maya Moore — at Gray more often this season. Phoenix and Chicago have gone so far as to switch ball screen actions involving Gray. When executed properly, Gray won’t see the same creases to get going downhill toward the basket.
Even playing a relatively short schedule, a 48 percent clip from deep is tough to replicate. Gray is a hair above 39 percent coming out of the break, but has begun to shoot more on the move, which makes her all the more dangerous even when she starts a possession without the ball in her hands.
According to Synergy Sports, Gray scored a staggering 1.364 points per possession on spot ups in 2017. That number resounded loud and clear with opponents; Gray has been limited to just 63 spot up possessions through 26 games this season. She has managed to hurt teams in other ways to nearly the same tune, though, scoring 1.316 points per possession on 79 possessions coming off screens, in isolation or in the post. (She scored 0.925 PPP on 53 such possessions last season.)
Gray has also developed a very fun pick-and-pop partnership with Parker, which has included some delightful no-look feeds:
“It’s fun for me as a teammate to play with her because she’s able to create for everybody - herself, her teammates,” Parker said. “She sees the game really well. If anybody knows me, I love players that know the game of basketball, and she definitely has a high basketball IQ.”
Gray has also quickly become a player known for making big-time plays in crunch time, something Sparks head coach Brian Agler and her teammates have noticed and tried to take advantage of.
“In that timeout, they were encouraging me, Candace was encouraging me, especially, to get it in [Gray’s] hands.” Agler said after Gray’s game-winner in Game 1 of the 2017 Finals, referring to the timeout that preceded that final possession.
”I think it’s great to have that backing from your teammates and your coaching staff,” Gray said. “I think it allows me to play at a higher level knowing that you have that support and that confidence. You can’t help but to be confident in yourself if you have the support.”
LA’s stars have become known across the league for the great lengths they go to in order to prepare their bodies to compete at the highest level, Gray included. She played overseas this past offseason for Botas in Turkey, allowing Gray to enter this season in the best shape of her career.
”I kind of focus on getting better for the next year, coming into this WNBA season,” Gray said. “It’s a different dynamic over there. The food’s different so you kind of eat differently. It kind of forces you to get in shape, at least from my vantage point.”
The nature of the condensed season has made things difficult for every team, though, with a lack of available practice days, long home/away stretches and back-to-backs flying commercial.
”Knowing when to get off of our feet I think is a tough one,” Gray said. “We don’t have as much court time to be able to go through full-throttle practices and really practice things that we have to get better at. So we’re learning a lot of different things through film, through speaking, through walkthroughs, and I think that’s why the game takes a great, great mental focus.”
Once Gray completely masters those things, she’ll get even better, because Gray only turns 26 in October, a scary thought for the rest of the league. One of the WNBA’s elite guards has just barely entered her prime and has years of good basketball ahead of her, another welcome thought for the Sparks as they gear up for another playoff run with the hopes of winning their second championship in three years.