“To make the All-Defensive team this year, that’s my main goal,” says Allisha Gray. It’s been a resounding conviction from Gray all season in media availability and again in our conversation.
On top of that vocalization, Gray has embodied her words and then some on court. She routinely has the hardest assignment at the point of attack each night, covers ground at a top notch level, and blows up plays off of the ball. Often, the best defensive players show you what makes them great even if the ball goes in the basket.
It’s how she does it that stands out.
It’s about the consistency and ability to deduce the game to a possession by possession basis while still grasping the entirety. Gray imprints herself with her focus. So often she’s chasing a shifty guard around a bevy of screens, but her angles are immaculate. She’s so slippery and never feels sped up.
Kayla Thornton, who’s been on the Wings with Gray since her rookie year in 2017, notes that her attention to detail is the biggest shift she’s seen this year “I think she’s just been more focused. She has everything else, but she’s been really locked down on her details, knowing her personnel and coverages… that’s what’s important.”
She maps the court incredibly well, rarely taken by surprise as her attentiveness and poise allow her to maximize her athleticism. Rarely is there a moment felt on the ball for an opposing shot creator that Gray’s presence isn’t felt. Her length, timing, and lateral quickness are superb and she has a motor that runs exceptionally hot without pause. You might beat her this possession, but the next possession is a new opportunity, another 24 seconds with her getting skinny over any screen you throw her way, tapping the ball out in recovery, or swallowing your drive up with a block in the paint just when it feels daylight is in sight at the rim. The slate is wiped clean, and Gray is more than likely going to even the score.
“I feel like I’ve grown more mature on the defensive end, because I know last year like if you watch clips, I would jump at anything you toss at me. I was real antsy and just trying to do too much. This year, I let the game come to me… like I don’t go search for blocks, I mean if the opportunity’s there I’ll take it… I don’t go for fakes like I used to or jump foolishly, I just let it come to me.”
Gray leaves it all out on the court, gunning for that All-Defensive team with her unrelenting mentality and play style. Much like her play however, she puts in the work and tries to leave it at that. She’s not jumping for an All-Star nod, preferring to keep her goals internal.
“This year, I have a different mindset with goals. I don’t want to say it’s cliche, but like All-Defensive team is a broad goal, but as far as personal goals, I want to do more of protecting my peace.”
Past seasons of putting her goals out publicly led to internalized feelings of failure. You wouldn’t know in talking to Gray that she’s still only 27. Her demeanor is so calm and collected. She comes across incredibly thoughtful and earnest.
“The purpose of life is to enjoy it.. Of course I’m not perfect, I get rattled, but that’s my biggest demeanor of staying calm, just live life, be happy. Life is short,” says Gray.
She was really forced to find that resolve early on in life when dealing with a significant knee injury the summer before her senior season in high school, causing her to miss much of the year.
She says I’m not the first person to point out that she “has an old soul,” and that she likes to sit back and analyze life.
One of the consistent words that came across in describing Allisha in interviews: Quiet.
“When she first came to the league, at first you thought “Does she speak? Does she talk,” but now, she’s come out of her shell a little bit,” says Thornton.
“She has a voice, and when she does talk, it’s powerful and people listen. I think she’s matured in that way.”
As a student-athlete at South Carolina, Gray was even more quiet according to head coach Dawn Staley. Staley prioritizes communication and asking questions, and she and her staff force players out of their comfort zone to grow in that area.
“The year we won a National Championship (2017) we used to do lunch with Lish,” says Staley, immediately chuckling while reminiscing and recounting the story.
Before pregame meals or buffet lines during practice days, Gray would go through everything that was on the menu, explaining and elaborating on what it was.
“It was the funniest thing, because she’s got that southern voice, and it was so innocent and so sweet, yet it was incredibly funny. I don’t really think she understands how funny she is because she’s just being herself… she’s always gonna be herself, and I think that’s the most beautiful thing ever, that you know who you are.”
A’ja Wilson, Gray’s teammate at South Carolina, fondly remembered lunch with Lish as well.
“If people don’t know Lish, she’s probably the quietest person I know. I guess that’s the beauty of our friendship, I’m the loud outspoken one and Lish is the quiet reasonable one. I really didn’t understand how much of a gem (Lunch with Lish) was until she graduated,” says Wilson. “We needed her to be the face of something and because of her country accent, it’s just crazy to hear her speak about different kinds of foods and what she thinks they are… and it’s like we’re not eating anything crazy, it’s corn and rice and she would elaborate on that. So it was very big for her, just to hear Lish’s voice, but also what she was talking about was funny.”
Wilson and Gray were quadmates in college and their two other quadmates transferred before the 2017 season.
“Honestly, Lish is my big sister that I’ve looked up to our whole friendship… during that time, we really bonded and she started to come out of her shell, because I guess she could trust me as a friend. Watching her in interviews now and talking, like, her media person even came to me and was like “Hey, we got your girl talking now!” that’s something that’s so big, especially in the W in showing that you’re more than an athlete and showing that side of you.”
Wilson and Gray recently played one another in a tight game between the Aces and Wings on June 15th. The Aces won, but the pair shared a nice moment postgame before heading off the court. In spite of the distance between them and the rigors of a professional schedule, their friendship persists.
The day after the matchup, Wilson and Gray spent the day together at Six Flags in Arlington, Texas.
“The highlights? Well we got unlimited food which is always key,” laughed Wilson.
“We don’t really have an opportunity to just hangout like we used to in college. If you saw Lish, you saw A’ja. If you saw A’ja, you saw Lish. I remember crying in my dorm room when she left early to go to the league, because I was like, this is my best friend leaving, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. So whenever we have an opportunity to capitalize on a moment and hang out, we do.”
Allisha facetimes A’ja out of the blue at least once a week to catch up. They’re always hyping one another up on Instagram and in one another’s corner.
“We won the National Championship game my Junior year, and that was a hard year for me. I lost my grandmother that year before and Lish was someone that really helped me get out of that hole that I was in. I just remember the buzzer going off and I just literally dropped to my knees and started crying. And Lish comes over and she’s like “Girl, stop crying! We’re National Champions!” and that was probably the most words Lish said that whole game and just seeing her happiness was big time for me, because of what we went through together that year leading up to that,” says Wilson
That’s another resounding sentiment when talking to those close to Allisha, how genuine and caring she is. Nothing is fake with her, she doesn’t put on a front or act a different way depending on who she’s around. Allisha Gray is Allisha Gray at all times on or off the court, regardless of environment.
“She’s not only my teammate, but my best friend, my sister… her presence just brings a lot when she walks in the room. She always puts her family first. You usually don’t find that often, kids involving their parents that want their parents around a lot… she’s just a blessing,” says Thornton.
Gray and her parents still talk on the phone before every game.
“Ever since high school, ever since I left the house. They give me encouraging pep talks… it’s always been a persistent thing since I moved out,” says Gray.
Winning means a lot to Gray. She despises losing, whether it be on the court or playing video games, just watch her Twitch streams and pour one out for her trusty gaming controller.
“Man, that girl’s probably went through at least five (controllers,” laughs Thornton, who games with Gray often.
That same focus and calm you see on court when she’s hounding a ball-handler, or locking in to stroke a three coming off a pindown is present when she’s playing Call of Duty; until she gets sniped!
The entire first five minutes of our conversation is over our shared disdain for campers and hackers in online games. She prefers rebirth to the typical Warzone mode in Call of Duty, a fast paced game on a much smaller map as opposed to the more spread out and larger scale Warzone. It’s all about awareness. Constant movement and reactivity is a must if you want to win, which Allisha always is. She doesn’t note it, but it was so interesting recognizing the similarities in how she likes to play the game on and off the court.
The 007 (GoldenEye & Nightfire) games were the first that she fell in love with and realized video games were her groove. Growing up with her brother AJ, gaming together was a constant. She’s settled on Xbox after flipping back and forth between systems (her first system was a Playstation One), and even has a specialized travel case to bring it on road trips including the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo where she won Gold with the 3×3 team.
Winning Gold is one of her crowning accomplishments. Her Twitch channel is still labeled GoldMedalLish, her Instagram and Twitter had that moniker for much of the past two years as well.
“I was on a gold medal high for the whole season… I don’t think I came down until around the start of the next season. Gold Medal Lish will be forever,” says Gray.
She gave herself the nickname after winning Gold, something that may come across as cockiness out of context, but couldn’t be further from that in Gray’s case. Getting to know her through talking to her and those closest to her, it was all pride and endearment. She absolutely beamed talking about that team and what it meant to her, a fulfilled process and journey. Years of consistent and relentless training and dedication paying off in the highest fashion.
There was a story that circulated after the team won in Tokyo on Tee with A and Phee, A’ja Wilson and Napheesa Collier’s joint podcast, that Gray slept with her gold medal.
“Oh yeah, I slept with my gold medal right by me! Had it’s own pillow and I tucked it in and everything. I sure did,” says Gray when asked about it before giving a good heartfelt laugh.
She picked up another piece of hardware in Tokyo, her now signature goggles. She was poked in the eye during a scrimmage, a feeling she never forgot, but we lightheartedly joke that much like in her gaming, the goggles are an accessory that add accuracy to her jumper; she’s 7th in three-point percentage this season (43%) while taking the 10th most attempts from beyond the arc this season per Her Hoop Stats.
Gray’s been a good shooter her whole life, and since an early adjustment to the league, she’s shot league average or better the past three seasons, but this is a career mark by far both in volume and accuracy. She’s already made more threes in 18 games this season than she has in an entire season prior, while also being on pace to take more than she ever has, already surpassing her season total attempts the past three seasons.
“Last year, I’d be in the gym by myself, because COVID was going crazy, and have my trainer on Zoom. This off-season, we still did Zoom sessions, but my boyfriend was able to get in the gym and do the workouts with me as well, so it just helped having that other person in the gym to rebound, because it gets tiring rebounding for yourself. I just focused on shooting this off-season and got way more shots up than I ever have,” says Gray.
Each year, her game becomes more refined, more disciplined, the edges smooth out. She’s always been a capable shooter and defender, but the jump to become one of the best at both isn’t something that just happened.
“If you see me do something on court, just know I worked on it, I’ll never do something outside my comfort zone that I’ve never worked on… I just stay within myself and stay consistent.”
Yet, the way she’s guarded now opens up her game even more as a scorer and secondary ball-handler. Her defensive impact is felt at an even higher degree and with metronomic consistency.
She’ll briefly touch on the work she puts in, but barely cracks the surface, as teammates, friends, and coaches highlight her as one of the hardest workers in basketball.
“She wants to be great, and she does everything in the off-season to become just that. I think it’s the coolest thing to see the evolution of a player getting better right before our eyes,” says Staley.
She doesn’t often show it, and actively works to not “show her hand”, but Gray plays with a chip on her shoulder, something Wilson states when talking about the developments she’s seen from Gray in the W.
“This year, I think we’re seeing the real Lish. We’re seeing someone that’s put in the work constantly in the off-season, quietly… it’s crazy that she doesn’t show it or say much about it, but you see it pays off. At the end of the day, this isn’t new, I know exactly what Lish is fully capable of. She’s an All-Star in our league… it’s been amazing to watch her game grow and Lish grow as a person as well.”
Allisha Gray isn’t a big talker, but the words she does speak, speak volumes. Her remarkably consistent play is demonstrative, and she prefers to let her body of work be her biggest advocate.
Newly hired WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.