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2020 Sparks Exit Interviews: Chelsea Gray

The Wubble was a bit of a step backwards for the All-Star.

Washington Mystics v Los Angeles Sparks Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Name: Chelsea Gray

Age: 28 (27 during the season)

Contract status: Gray made $195,000 on a one-year deal that she signed as a restricted free agent during the offseason, per The Next’s salary database. She is now an unrestricted free agent, and eligible to sign a supermax contract with the Los Angeles Sparks.

Stats: Gray started all 22 of the Sparks regular season games, and averaged 14.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.5 steals per game while playing 30.9 minutes. She shot 44.2% from the field, 30.5% from the three-point line, and 93.9% from the free throw line.

Gray had 4 points and 2 rebounds in the Sparks’ playoff loss to the Connecticut Sun.

Preseason expectations: Prior to the start of the season, I wrote this:

Now, as a coronavirus-truncated WNBA season prepares to get underway, the Sparks will find themselves relying heavily on Gray, who just may be the best player on a team with multiple future Hall of Famers.

That’s high praise for a team that had MVPs in Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike, but Gray was deserving. The three-time All-Star had a case as the Sparks best player in 2019, and was clearly on an upward trajectory.

The expectations were simple, albeit tall. She was to be one of the best players in the league, garner some MVP votes, and be a leader on both ends of the court for a team with championship aspirations.

It was a high bar, but a fair one.

What went well: Gray had a disappointing season — more on that in a bit — but that shouldn’t distract us from the fact that she was still a very good player who performed at an All-Star level.

Her on-ball defense was, at times, as tenacious as ever, and she set a career-high in steals per game. Despite her three-point shot taking a big step backwards, she actually had a more efficient offensive season this year than last (51.8% true-shooting to 50.9%). Much of that can be attributed to an improved ability to pick her spots and some very intelligent shot selection. While Gray has at times in the past forced up a bad shot just because she beat her defender, she was a bit more patient this year, and willing to shoot a slightly longer shot if it meant being more open.

Prior to the season, head coach Derek Fisher and assistant general manager Michael Fischer both lauded Gray for the strides she was making as a leader, and that was on display at the Wubble in Florida. In her sixth year, Gray was clearly vocal with her teammates — both in praise and in critique — and could often be seen helping explain things to the team’s younger players.

And of course, the player who has come to be known as the Point Gawd did not disappoint when it came to the types of assists that make you hit the rewind button.

She was also spectacular off the court. Gray became one of the Sparks most vocal leaders in speaking up against racial oppression and police brutality, and started the Chelsea Gray Assist for Equality program. Through that program Gray donated $50 — which the Sparks matched — for every assist throughout the season. The money — which ended up totaling $11,600 — was split between Rock The Vote and Equality California, an LGBTQ+ civil rights organization.

What needs to improve: Despite all that — and with the disclaimer that 2020 has been an absurd year and it’s understandable if players aren’t at their best — Gray took a clear step backwards from a year ago.

Her 3-point shot fell off a cliff, which represents a disturbing trend. She shot 48.2% from deep in 2017, then 39.2% in 2018, 38.2% in 2019, and just 30.5% in 2020. Her defense, while still really good, wasn’t at the all-world level that she’s occasionally flashed in the past. She had a large number of defensive lapses, which is a bit disappointing for a defender of her capability.

But perhaps the most disappointing part of Gray’s season was the fact that she didn’t seem any more adept at beating defenses that trapped and targeted her in the halfcourt. A year ago the Sparks were swept out of the postseason in a best-of-five series against the Sun. Connecticut’s lethal halfcourt defense on Gray was much of the story, as she mustered just 21 points on 10-for-33 shooting in the series, with 13 assists to 9 turnovers.

So all eyes were on Gray when the Sparks and Sun met in a single elimination game in the Wubble. But unfortunately for L.A., it was more of the same. Gray was a non-factor for the bulk of the game, and finished with 4 points on 2-for-9 shooting, with 0 assists.

She was not the Sparks’ best player, nor was she their second-best player. She was good, but gave the team some problems they need to solve going forward. If Gray is no longer a good 3-point shooter, and can be taken out of games with the right defensive scheme, the Sparks potential is capped.

Future with the Sparks: Gray is a free agent, but all signs point towards her staying. The franchise thinks very highly of her, as do her teammates. She has professed a love of both the city and organization, and has planted roots in L.A. with her wife. She has a close relationship with Parker and both Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike.

It’s going to require some cap gymnastics to get all of those players re-signed this offseason, but all signs point towards it happening, in which case Gray can continue growing as one of the faces of the franchise.

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