Chelsea Gray shadowed the veteran players when she joined the Sparks in 2016. She followed them during pregame meals, noted what they ate and ordered the same thing. She asked questions. She loved coming to practice every day.
Kristi Toliver noticed the second-year point guard with a wide smile and bright spirit, even before Gray came off the bench to help the Sparks win the 2016 WNBA title.
“To me, there was no doubt in my mind that she was going to be an elite guard in our game,” said Toliver, the two-time WNBA champion who rejoined the Sparks this offseason. “It was just a matter of opportunity.”
Now a three-time All-Star, Gray hopes to lead the Sparks back to a championship, this time as a starter on a loaded team of veterans. Some of those other stars, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Seimone Augustus, may steal the spotlight, but Gray, with her steady demearnor and signature behind-the-back passes, is important to the team's championship aspirations.
“You don’t win a championship without a good point guard, a solid point guard,” Gray said. “It doesn’t mean they have to have all the stats, but if you have a solid point guard that does their job, it’s consistent with a championship.”
To Diana Taurasi, the Phoenix Mercury star, her Team USA teammate is "one of the best point guards in the world."
Gray, 27, entered this season after earning first-team All-WNBA honors last year with averages of 14.5 points and career highs in assists (5.9) and rebounds (3.8).
She is averaging 11 points, 6.3 assists and 2.0 rebounds for the Sparks (2-2) entering Wednesday night's game against the Indiana Fever in the WNBA's Bradenton, Fla., bubble.
Gray describes her start as “a little bit inconsistent.” She’s shooting 34% and is one for 13 from three-point range. Gray’s goal during a six-game stretch over the next 10 days is to rediscover her balance on both ends of the court. But acknowledging how far she’s come during the past three years, she knows success isn't always reflected by stats.
“It’s my responsibility to bring other people along and lead them in a way that when their time is called they’re able to do the same thing,” Gray said. “But I also want to be able to play free.”
The Manteca, Calif., native keeps the pressures of leading a championship-caliber team in perspective by tapping into her love for the game. Underneath the guard who “exudes championship mentality,” as Ogwumike said, Gray is still that little girl who got hooked on basketball when her cousin Steven and her older brother Javon put a ball in her hands.
“It was a dream,” she said of playing in the WNBA, stretching out the words to emphasize how far-fetched it felt to her.
Gray’s dream was nearly squashed in college when her final two seasons at Duke were both cut short by gruesome knee injuries. She suffered a dislocated right kneecap as a junior when she was averaging 12.6 points, 5.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 steals and the Blue Devils were 23-1. As a senior, she was averaging 10.8 points, 7.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.9 steals for a No. 3-ranked 16-1 team when she fractured her kneecap in the same leg.
“All of those dreams, from going to a Final Four, going to the WNBA, being drafted," Gray said, "it was getting dimmer and dimmer."
Though still haunted by lost opportunities at Duke, Gray realized many other goals. She was drafted 11th overall by Connecticut in 2014. After sitting out the first season to recover from the injury, she made her WNBA debut in 2015. In 2016, she became a champion.
After a draft-day trade in 2016 sent her to the Sparks, Gray’s energy off the bench helped L.A. survive a five-game WNBA Finals against the defending champion Minnesota Lynx. With Toliver on the bench in foul trouble, Gray delivered 11 straight points across the third and fourth quarters of Game 5 to keep the Sparks within striking distance before Ogwumike sealed the dramatic victory with two seconds remaining.
Toliver, who opted out this year because of the coronavirus outbreak, said the series showed Gray’s attention to detail and championship desire. That drive is even more important during this pandemic-shortened season.
“In a lot of ways, it was hard to talk about a championship, because there are so many other things that are so much bigger than us happening in this world,” Ogwumike said, “but for us to be able to channel our emotions and our integrity and our passions in a way to walk, talk and act like champions, I feel as though that’s the mind-set that Chelsea brings to the team.”