In the fifth year of her WNBA career, Chelsea Gray finally feels as though she has it figured out.
She’s come a long way from a rookie trying to figure out how to be on her own and be responsible for herself. She had to focus on her professional athlete’s body, her schedule and ability to compete against some of the best players on the planet.
“I feel like I know the nuances of the league, I see a lot of familiar faces, I know how to take care of my body,” she said. “You want to turn that corner, and for the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to turn that corner where I am considered a veteran.”
Now when she looks around the Los Angeles Sparks’ locker room, she isn’t the youngest anymore.
“I can see that shift,” Gray said. “There are rookies here. But I still see the people ahead of me and how much further I have to go.”
Gray finds herself in the prime of her career, nearing the height of her considerable powers on the basketball court. She has always been a big, physical guard; good for a mismatch on the perimeter, poised and mentally tough enough to make big shots in the clutch.
Look no further than her performance on Saturday in Minnesota, during a nationally televised game against the Lynx. Gray, who has hit her share of big shots against the Lynx, doomed Minnesota again. She finished the game with 21 points, including a run of eight straight points in the fourth quarter. Her score off an in-bounds play with 8.5 seconds to go in the game sealed a very big road win for the Sparks, who are 3-2 in the opening weeks of this season.
For Minnesota it was a bad case of Deja vu – Gray hit game-clinching shots against them in the 2017 WNBA Finals, and again in the 2018 season-opener between the two teams. But for Gray, it’s just another chance to get better.
The Sparks are playing through a series of transitions – it’s the first season under head coach Derek Fisher, who has the added luxury of All-Star Chiney Ogwumike to the front-court. But the team has also encountered an early-season leg injury to defensive stopper Alana Beard and a hamstring injury that will keep Candace Parker out of the lineup for the immediate future. Both players were reportedly participating in practice earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Gray serves as a stable force during this unsettled time. A leader on the floor in a way she has never been in her career to this point, she’s a tone-setter who brings some much needed-levity to a team that can bring the intensity.
“Chelsea is a serious person on the floor, but she also has this light, bubbly personality and she likes to joke and have fun and she brings an ease to our group that’s important,” Fisher said. “Nneka brings strong leadership. Alana brings strong leadership. Chelsea is a little different and I think teams need that person that can make you bust up laughing, or bring a little normalcy or perspective to the room. She wants to win, but she also wants to help us enjoy it while we do.”
Gray, who has started 68 games for the Sparks over the past two seasons, leads Los Angeles in scoring through five games, averaging 15.6 points per game in a balanced scoring offense. Her scoring average is currently a career-high. In June, she put up a career-high 29 points in a road win over the New York Liberty, including four 3-pointers.
She said she came into the season wanting to exert herself, not necessarily as a leading scorer, but as a leader.
“It’s a new season and a new opportunity,” Gray said. “You can have the exact same pieces and the exact same team and it can be a totally different season. You have to bring something new to the process as an individual. I came into this year wanting to improve as a leader, along with working on my 3-point shot and becoming more mentally tough.”
Fisher, known in his NBA career for his own clutch shots, sees a kindred spirit in Gray. The coach says he is getting what he needs from his All-Star point guard at this critical point in the season.
“As a player and person, she’s developed astronomically over the past couple of years,” Fisher said. “She started out as a young guard and became an All-Star caliber player, and now she is one of the best players in the game.”
Gray makes his team ‘go’.
“She’s smart, she’s competitive, she can shoot, defend and she’s learning how to lead more and more as our team evolves,” Fisher said. “She is a person that we want and need to follow. She puts our offense together. Without Candace on the floor, and playing in a new system, she makes plays for herself and for other people and that’s a huge bonus for us.”
The coach has spoken to Gray about “allowing the game to come to her.”
“She is going to receive some attention with Candace being out and she is really working to find that balance of how much to be aggressive and bring her teammates along and show her trust in them,” Fisher said.
Gray said she just wants to push her game a little bit further each time she goes out on to the floor.
“I have a growth mindset and I always just want to do the one-percent more.” Gray said.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.