December 7, 2005
WINSTON-SALEM -- Perhaps no Wake Forest player was more affected by Chris Paul's presence over the last two years than Justin Gray.
Since Gray is a shooting guard, you'd assume that Paul's presence would be a positive for Gray. And in many ways, it certainly was: Gray developed into an All-ACC shooting guard over the past two seasons, largely off feeds from Paul. In the long run, though, Paul's time at Wake may have hampered Gray's career development.
Gray arrived a year before Paul, and he hit the ground with force. His on-court talent was obvious, as he showed shooting range and driving skill. Off the court, he quickly assumed a leading spokesman role, even as a freshman. That translated into locker-room leadership early on as well.
It didn't take long for people around the program to be reminded of Randolph Childress. Gray's game was similar: three-pointers, crashing drives, and the ability to create offense for others, even as a shooting guard. Gray's personality also appeared similar -- filled with that certain bravado, a fearlessness, both on and off the court.
Paul's arrival changed all of that. The Gray-Childress comparison quickly faded. It was Paul who the offense ran through. Paul generally took the big shots and provided that bravado, and off the court, he took a lot of the spotlight and leadership.
Gray didn't fade away completely, but he did change. His game became much more that of a passive shooter. During his freshman year, 51.6 percent of Gray's shots were three-pointers. That rose to 60 percent over the last two years. As a freshman, he averaged a free throw every 5.8 minutes played. That rose to one every 8.2 minutes over the last two years, a sign that Gray wasn't going to the basket as often. As a freshman, he averaged an assist every 7.8 minutes played. That rose to one every 11.9 minutes over the last two seasons.
Childress didn't play with a dominant point guard, and the offense usually ran through him. Considering his prowess as a scorer, one of Childress' most amazing stats is that he averaged 3.9 assists a game to 1.5 turnovers. Each year, he got better and better at making others better, reaching 5.2 assists to 1.5 turnovers as a senior.
Gray started out with that ability to create assists from his offense. He had 80 assists to 54 turnovers as a freshman. But over the last two seasons, Gray averaged 80.5 assists and 76.5 turnovers.
So this year, coach Skip Prosser asked Gray to return to his roots, as a point guard, as a locker-room leader, and as that "bravado" guy. It hasn't been easy. But Prosser found a psychological button to push, and he may have started unlocking the old Gray.
In the first four games of the season, Gray averaged 16 points a game on 36.2 percent shooting (32 from three-point range) and had 20 assists to 29 turnovers. In the next four games, Gray averaged 23.5 points a game on 53.4 percent shooting (43 from three-point range) and had 13 assists to nine turnovers.
What was the difference? It was a Prosser lineup move that may have played more in Gray's head than anything else. The coach inserted freshman Harvey Hale as the starting point guard. The difference in Gray's mental state was obvious.
After the first game of the change, Prosser was very deliberate in answering a question about Gray and point guard.
"Justin Gray is going to be fine at the point," Prosser said. "I have every confidence that Justin Gray is going to be a good point guard for Wake Forest this year."
Gray was just the opposite. He already was referring to his tenure at the point in the past tense.
"I know a lot of people have been looking at it that you've got an All-ACC shooting guard playing point guard," Gray said. "And you know, that's just something we were trying."
The truth is, Prosser has played Gray at the point for plenty of minutes since then. But in his mind, Gray isn't the starting point guard anymore.
He doesn't have to act like a point guard -- thinking about making his teammates better first, which seemed to paralyze him some in the opening games. He doesn't have to answer all of those questions about the switch to the point and his turnovers and everything else. He can go back to trying to be a Childress-like guard, someone who runs the offensive show but does it with an aggressive, score-first mentality.
The first strong glimpse of that player came against Wisconsin, when Gray's offense was spectacular. He handled the ball, scored from outside, drove the lane and drew fouls. He had averaged 10 three-point attempts in the previous four games, and he cut those to five.
The bravado was back -- on the court, on the bench and in the locker room. The only thing missing was using that offense to make his teammates better (he had two assists), but it was a strong first step.
WILLIAMS, ROTATION WORTH WATCHING
Center Eric Williams' shot attempts have been headed in the wrong direction lately. He averaged a shot every 2:52 of action as a sophomore, then every 2:59 as a junior. Through eight games this year, that average was at 3:01.
While good offensive balance is a key, the Deacons still seem to forget that they have one of the country's best big men in the post. Often, Williams will get a number of shots at the beginning of either half, but as the players get further away from Prosser's locker-room instructions, Williams sees the ball less and less.
Of course, his teammates may not want to pass Williams the ball if he can't hit his free throws. After shooting 64 percent over the last two seasons, he shot 39 percent from the line over the first eight games this year. Look for teams that can afford the fouls to just begin hacking Williams whenever possible.
Want evidence that it's all in his head? An exasperated Williams gave two very long answers after the Appalachian State game, talking about all the different things he was thinking about and what happened when he was at the line.
Meanwhile, see if Prosser will stick with his big lineup, dictating to opponents instead of being dictated to in return. In the past -- and at times already this year -- the coach has had a tendency to play down to smaller lineups, perhaps fearful that his bigger lineups can't guard well enough in those matchups.
But his big lineups are dominating the boards (+16 this year vs. +7 last year) and blocking shots (6.9 a game this year vs. 3.6 last year). Wake hasn't had any shotblockers in recent years, but on this team veteran forwards Kyle Visser and Chris Ellis both can do the job. Having the ability to block shots can make up for some defensive woes, something Wake hasn't been able to do much in past seasons.