Chelsea Gray’s hot hand helps put Las Vegas Aces on brink of first WNBA title

Chelsea Gray's hot hand helps put Las Vegas Aces on brink of first WNBA title thumbnail

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    M.A. VoepelESPN.com

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      M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA and women’s college basketball for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

LAS VEGAS — How on fire has Chelsea Gray been during the 2022 WNBA playoffs? Teammate A’ja Wilson is the league’s MVP, yet even she says sometimes her best move on court is to get out of Gray’s way.

The 5-foot-11 guard has averaged 23.3 points, 7.1 assists and 3.9 rebounds while shooting 60.5% from the field in eight playoff games. The Aces will enter Game 3 at 9 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Connecticut to complete a sweep at the best-of-five WNBA Finals. Gray’s streak of success is something that most players can’t even dream about.

“She makes big plays,” teammate Kelsey Plum said. She wants the ball in big moments. She feels safe when she has it. If you’re the opponent it feels very dangerous. Gray, who turns 30 in October, is playing with the unshakeable confidence of a veteran at her peak. She is 18-of-27 (66.7%) on contested shots in the WNBA Finals — all other players combined are shooting 36% on contested shots — and has five 20-point, five-assist games this postseason, one shy of the all-time record, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Gray’s overall 60.5% field goal percentage ranks fourth all-time of any player in a single WNBA postseason (minimum 100 attempts). And last year, Gray made her Olympic debut helping the U.S. women to win gold at the Tokyo Games.

Gray’s journey to this point was not easy, especially considering how her WNBA career began. She said, “It was tough.” “A couple of the most difficult years. “

Eight years ago, Gray was No. 11 pick in the 2014 WNBA draft, going that low because of concerns about her knee, not her talent. A fractured right kneecap had ended her senior year and college career at Duke in January 2014, four months before the draft. Gray had dislocated the same kneecap the previous February and had missed the 2013 postseason.

She didn’t play in the 2014 WNBA season, during which time she really took stock of her life and her basketball career.

” What do you do if you lose your basketball career? Gray said. Gray said, “One thing is to find meaning in other things; what else could make me happy and fulfilled? My circle got smaller. I began to think about what I wanted my next few decades to look like. I always tell people that there is a plan, or a map for them. If you don’t see someone doing it, create your own. I feel like that. “

In Gray’s rookie season in 2015, she was a reserve with the Connecticut Sun, the team she is facing now for the 2022 WNBA title. She averaged 6.9 points for the Sun, who went 15-19 and missed the playoffs.

That winter, then-Los Angeles Sparks coach Brian Agler went to Spain, where Gray was playing. He watched her and thought she could help his 2016 Sparks, who had post players Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender, but needed a youthful boost at guard. On draft day 2016, the Sparks selected forward Jonquel Jones and then traded her to Connecticut for Gray. Both teams were happy with the deal. Jones has since led the Sun to the WNBA Finals twice, in 2019 and this year, and was MVP in 2021. Gray went to the WNBA Finals twice with Los Angeles, winning in 2016, and is now making her third Finals appearance. This time, it’s with Las Vegas, where she signed as a free agent in 2021.

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Kelsey Plum passes out to Chelsea Gray who draws the foul as she knocks down the big 3.

Agler recalled a moment late in the 2016 season when Gray had a four-game stretch where she had played single-digit minutes, followed by a game where she didn’t play at all. Later, he texted her to tell her not to read into it as the team would definitely need her for the rest of the season.

” Her response was that she was happy to win and not to worry about it. Agler stated, “I’ll be ready to the next one.” “That’s how she is, such an outstanding leader and team player. “

Sure enough, Gray scored 20 points in the Sparks’ next game two days later and played double-digit minutes in every game the rest of the season as Los Angeles went on to win the WNBA championship. Gray spent five years with the Sparks. Gray, a native Californian who grew to love the Sacramento Monarchs’ point guard Ticha Penicheiro made it difficult for Gray not to consider leaving the Sparks. Las Vegas was not far away and the Aces held a full court press to sign Gray as a free agent.

” Gray stated that it wasn’t one thing that made her decide to join the Aces. It was the way the organization was run, from top to bottom, and the conversation I had [team owner] Mark Davis. The team’s personnel.

“A’ja was the one with whom I had a relationship from USA Basketball. It felt natural to come here and visit him. “

Last season, Gray helped the Aces reach the semifinals, where they took the Phoenix Mercury to five games but lost. Las Vegas was left distraught, but it made the Aces all the more determined for 2022.

Gray said her 2016 WNBA championship experience helps to a degree in pursuit of this year’s title, but it was also a long time ago in sports terms.

“The game has changed from 2016 to now, like there are so many more 3s going up,” Gray said. But you have to remember how difficult it was to get there. It becomes a laser-focused focus for me by the playoffs and I don’t respond to anything else, even my closest friends. They know that I am a bit of a hermit. She is a marquee attraction and her shot-making has been a highlight in the WNBA postseason. Gray — who was left off July’s All-Star rosters but named MVP of the Commissioner’s Cup championship game two weeks later — shot 49.1% from the field and 34.0% on 3-pointers in the regular season, but has increased those numbers to 60.5% and 52.0% (26 of 50) in the playoffs.

Through Game 2 of the Finals, 96 of Gray’s 124 field goal attempts in the playoffs have been contested (77.4%), and she is shooting 63.5% (61 of 96) on those — even better than her 50% shooting (14 of 28) on uncontested shots this postseason, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. What makes her so unique is her ability make contested shots,” Sun coach Curt Mills said. “This league is full of incredible players who make open shots. Chelsea is a champion at contested shots. Chelsea is an elite player at this against a variety players who are trying to keep her in check. “

Two factors make it possible: Gray has a low jump and doesn’t need a lot of space. Gray can lean back and shoot with her head above the ball, making it difficult to contest.

Sometimes, even her teammates are amazed at the shots Gray makes, especially in crucial moments. They also love her sense of humor as well as her broad musical tastes. Wilson has enjoyed the two-year friendship with Gray as a friend and colleague.

” I have never met anyone I was not watching, and then when we got there (USA Basketball), it felt like we were just sharing our minds,” Wilson said about his first time playing with Gray at a U.S. national camp. “I was like, “I need her as my teammate.” ‘

” We’re always on one page. She also helps me to communicate things when I’m not sure how. Chelsea puts it out loud. I think we just bounce off one another. “

They also share the same competitive drive that the Aces have greatly benefited from.

” That killer instinct and the will to win brings us together,” Wilson stated. We need that connection. It’s beautiful. “

Becky Hammon called Gray her surrogate courtside; the two connected immediately when the coach took over the Aces’ season. Hammon suffered two serious knee injuries in her WNBA career and can relate to Gray’s struggle to start her WNBA journey.

“But, it builds a toughness within you that you’ll require down the road,” Hammon stated. It’s hard to believe that you have only two options when you’re an athlete. Either you don’t get better or you work hard to get better. We’ve seen Chelsea do it. “

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