Is Chelsea Gray The Title Piece Las Vegas Has Been Missing?

In a sense, it’s a miracle Las Vegas made the 2020 WNBA Finals.

A swarm of injury gnats pestered the Aces throughout their stay in Bradenton, Florida, leaving the team shorthanded entering a semifinal bout with Connecticut. A’ja Wilson’s excellence was enough to cover for her group of hobbled teammates as Las Vegas eked out a Game 5 victory over the Sun. You can only ask so much of your superstar, though, and sure enough Bill Laimbeer’s bunch fizzled out as they approached the final stop on the Wubble Express. Seattle flew in on their brooms, swept the exhausted Aces, and that was that. See you next year.

The noncompetitive three-game series against Seattle exposed a serious flaw in Las Vegas’ roster construction. While Storm faithful enjoyed watching Sue Bird do Sue Bird things, Aces faithful were left bemoaning their squad’s point guard play, or lack thereof. Jackie Young was overwhelmed by the intensity and gravity of the moment. Danielle Robinson performed admirably but didn’t strike fear in the hearts of the green-and-yellow. Kelsey Plum was recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.

What wasn’t evident to the public then, but became clear this offseason, was Las Vegas’ awareness of its gravest weakness. After Washington eliminated the Aces in the 2019 semifinals, and before the COVID-19 virus drastically altered everyone’s day-to-day reality, Las Vegas management flew a very special guest out to Sin City. Although Chelsea Gray—affectionately referred to by most as the “Point Gawd”—wouldn’t become an unrestricted free agent for another year, the Aces wanted to prove how much they valued the efforts and talent of a player like Gray.

It worked. Gray’s final game in a Los Angeles Sparks uniform was one of her worst. It appeared as if her focus had already shifted from California to Nevada. Sure enough, Gray inked a two-year contract with Las Vegas this offseason, making the Aces title favorites in the minds of many.

Now comes the even trickier part: making sure the pieces fit as snugly on the court as they do on paper.

So far, so good. The Aces lead the WNBA in Net Rating. They are 10-3, appearing to gain more comfort and feel with every contest.

And yet, the team is 1-3 against Seattle and Connecticut. Getting everyone to fire on the same cylinder has been a challenge against the best defenses in the league.

Gray’s leadership and direction may determine whether or not Las Vegas one-ups its 2020 result and claims the trophy, whether or not it can maintain its torrid pace and precision against the best of the best. Wilson is the team’s top player, but Gray is the floor general. Without solid play at the 1, the entire operation collapses. No pressure, Point Gawd!

Let’s delve into the three core areas of Gray’s game—passing, scoring, and defense—to see how things are going through 13 games, where there’s cause for celebration or concern, and what it all means for Las Vegas’ title dreams.

 

Passing

When you think “Point Gawd,” you think dimes. Dazzling dimes. Dimes that make you rewind the game, scratch your head, and scrunch your facial muscles in amazement. It’s deeper than that, but let’s get the “oohs and ahhs” out of the way first.

The following three assists are from Gray’s second game in an Aces uniform, Las Vegas’ one win in four tries against Seattle and Connecticut. This is absurd stuff, stuff that shouldn’t be possible in the infancy of your first season on a new ballclub.

 

Excuse me? Gray snatches the steal and takes off, identifying Kelsey Plum behind the three-point line and Dearica Hamby zipping to the rim. If you pause the video as Gray hits halfcourt, you’ll see her head pointed in Plum’s direction. The ball, however, is sent on a frozen rope directly into Hamby’s mitts, despite there only being a sliver of space to get it there. I’m still not over this. Threading the needle between Jewell Loyd and Candice Dupree here would be incredibly difficult even if Gray was staring down her target. The fact that she isn’t is astounding.

 

More brilliance. Loyd and Dupree both do a fantastic job of guarding this pick-and-roll between Gray and Hamby. It’s Breanna Stewart who gets exposed. Because Gray is potent as a scorer and not just a distributor, Stewart strays from A’ja Wilson to help on Gray’s drive. Wilson keenly identifies this and flashes to her favorite spot: the elbow. Gray senses Wilson’s movement and whips the rock behind her back to the MVP for a jumper.

 

The dagger. Gray is toying with Seattle at this point. Loyd and Stewart trap a Gray/Wilson pick-and-roll. Katie Lou Samuelson abandons Jackie Young in the corner, stepping up to take over on Wilson. Gray darts a skip pass like she’s launching a discus. Young pays it off for three.

What elevates Gray from “highlight-reel machine” to “all-around star point guard” status? Her flair is buttressed by a quick-witted and acute understanding of the game. Gray is an expert in exploiting hidden weaknesses. She knows where folks are inclined to move on the court and how to manipulate them into doing her bidding. She’s honed a fantastic feel for the tendencies of her teammates. She puts the ball exactly where it must be placed to maximize her team’s scoring chance.

 

This is another clip from the same game, one that won’t be played on League Pass commercial breaks (AT THE LOUDEST POSSIBLE VOLUME) until your eyes hop out of your cranium and waddle away, but one that will provide a blueprint for the Aces moving forward. Entry passes to Wilson in the post have historically been a struggle for Las Vegas. They generally aren’t a struggle for Gray. Pause the video as Gray perfectly lofts the pass over a fronting, outmatched Samuelson. Wilson is the only Aces player in the paint. Everyone else is behind the arc. Spacing like this could win Vegas the title.

 

Here’s another canny entry pass, this time to Liz Cambage. Again, Gray is playing chess, giving a brief glance toward Riquna Williams before feeding Cambage so as to prevent any Liberty defenders from digging at or doubling the post. These subtleties are overshadowed by the flashier assists, but they’re equally important and impressive.

Gray is averaging a career-high 6.4 assists, third in the WNBA. Per Across the Timeline, her assist-to-turnover ratio (2.18) is the highest it has been since 2018. All this while her teammates are still learning to keep their head on a swivel and expect the rock at all times.

“They know [the ball]is coming,” said Gray in response to a question asked by Anne Marie Anderson. “There’s just certain times throughout a game where I see different pockets that somebody [else]may not see. I’m like, ‘we’re going to run this play again, and this is the read out of it. You may not see that I see it,’ but it allows us to get easy scores, get easy possessions. It’s just little wrinkles that you’re able to see throughout a game.”

Little wrinkles the Point Gawd can see, and everyone else misses.

 

Scoring

Gray’s passes wouldn’t be so effective if dishing the rock was her only offensive talent. But it isn’t.

For starters, the Point Gawd can shoot. She’s a career 38.5 percent three-point shooter, and her range extends well behind the arc. Gray exists in a select tier of WNBA players who can create their own three-point looks with crossover dribbles and step-back maneuvers, superstars like Jewell Loyd, Arike Ogunbowale, and Diana Taurasi. Skulking under screens when Gray has the ball is a no-go. You’ll get punished by her shot creation if guarding against the pass is your only motive.

Gray must bump her efficiency in the restricted area, but she’s outpacing the rest of the league nearly everywhere else on the court. The mid-range is her bread and butter. Gray is lethal coming off down screens, catching the ball 10-to-15 feet away from the hoop, and hitting leaning jumpers over and around the defenders in tow. She’s strong and agile, a tricky combination for slighter defenders.

Gray’s nifty drives to the hoop open up space for Wilson and Young. Per WNBA.com, Gray, Wilson, and Young have shared the floor for more time than any other three-player combination on the Aces. That trio has posted a stellar 14.9 Net Rating in the 287 minutes they have played together. Gray’s numbers alongside other bunches of Aces are equally gaudy.

Las Vegas is still experimenting with what works well and what works even better on the offensive end. Gray/Wilson pick-and-rolls have sliced and diced the competition when others flare behind the arc. Another intriguing set (remember Gray’s behind-the-back masterpiece we highlighted earlier?) features Gray and Hamby running a pick-and-roll as Wilson either flashes to the elbow or receives a down screen to spring her.

None of these looks are nearly as effective without Gray’s dual-threat offensive skill set.

See Also

 

Defense

Unless your on-court identity reads, “DEFENSIVE STOPPER,” folks will always discuss offense first. Just look how I set up this piece: begin with the pizzaz, close with the gritty material. Well, here we are.

There’s an argument to be made that defense is the strongest aspect of Gray’s game. Defensive win shares is a noisy stat this early in the season, but it gives us a decent idea of who is excelling in the arena of team defense. Entering Saturday’s slate, Gray ranked among the top 15 in the league with 0.7 defensive win shares, per Basketball Reference. Our friends at Across the Timeline would like to add that Gray is currently posting career highs in both steal and block percentage.

As good as Gray is at throwing entry passes into the post, she may be even better at deterring them on the other end. Sleepwalking through the motions of a certain set is not an option with Gray on the prowl. If Gray is defending the post, she’ll slide around her assignment to get her hands on a lazy bounce pass. If she’s defending the perimeter, she’ll abandon her assignment and crash the party in the paint, poaching the ball before it reaches its intended destination.

 

Here she is mucking up her former team’s offensive attack by inching away from the corner and toward where the ball is about to arrive. Seconds later, she cans a deep triple in semi-transition.

 

This is the last video I’m stuffing you with, and it might be my favorite of the bunch. Gray guards Jasmine Thomas but creeps closer and closer to the action as Thomas stands idly. Wilson contains the drive of DeWanna Bonner, forcing a dump-off pass to Brionna Jones. Problem is, Gray looms a step away and loves hopping into passing lanes. All it takes is a lunge, Gray deflecting the pass and forcing another turnover.

That’s not all, though. Wilson retrieves the ball and gives it right back to Gray. Now Las Vegas is off to the races. Gray waits for Wilson to catch up, then hits her with a bullet as Jonquel Jones uncharacteristically gets blown by.

“Defense leads to offense” sounds neat, but rarely is it put into practice as effectively as the Aces have this season. This is where the Chelsea Gray experience comes full circle. Steals turn into fast breaks, and nowhere is Gray as lethal as in transition, sliding downhill with the whole court in front of her.

The Aces lead the league in Pace, per WNBA.com. That’s all fine and dandy, but you can play fast and still be a mess. That’s not the case in Las Vegas. Per Inpredictable, the Aces race down the court at breakneck speed of makes, misses, and turnovers. While they could be even more efficient off turnovers (sixth in the W), they rank second in points per possession off defensive rebounds and third off makes. Getting stops, grabbing boards, and flying up the floor to score has propelled Las Vegas to the top of the league in points per possession.

 

Outlook

There’s still much work to be done.

As many of Gray’s numbers have risen over her first 13 games in Las Vegas, so too have her turnovers. Gray’s turnover percentage is the highest it has been since her rookie season in 2015. That tracks. Gray is a high-risk, high-reward player, and the downside of her riverboat playstyle is that, well, sometimes you lose the bet.

Gray is averaging 11.8 points after four straight years of scoring 14+ per game. She’s shooting just one free throw a contest, the lowest mark of her career. This tracks, too. Players on new teams often play more passively than normal, wanting to appease their new teammates before looking to feed themselves. Gray must find a middle ground where she maintains her attacking sensibilities while also keeping everyone involved.

Ultimately, the good outweighs the bad. Gray is the player the Aces craved, and the one they landed.

She may just be the one that nudges Las Vegas over the top.

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