The Los Angeles Sparks won the 2016 WNBA title by going big.
No, not just up front, though a front line of Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker and Essence Carson certainly qualifies. But even their backcourt—a pair of 5’11 guards in Chelsea Gray and Alana Beard—ultimately served as mismatches throughout the season and into the successful playoff campaign.
That Beard continued her elite defensive reign of terror surprised no one. But Gray’s emergence not only proved decisive in the WNBA finals—with three double-digit scoring games, and a number of key baskets late in Game 5—it has accelerated at the start of the 2017 season, remarkable growth from a player who won’t turn 25 until October.
“I think that Chelsea is a really, really good player,” her coach, Brian Agler, told The Summitt prior to the Sparks game against the New York Liberty Tuesday night. “I think she can be a great player.
Through five games, Gray’s scoring average is up from 5.9 points per game in the 2016 regular season and 9.0 in the playoffs to 15.9 in 2017. She’s managed to lift her 30.4 percent mark from three in the 2016 regular season to 39.1 percent in the playoffs, and now 57.1 percent so far in 2017.
“I think it comes from within the team, from attention on Nneka and Candace,” Gray told The Summitt prior to Tuesday’s game against the Liberty. “A lot of teams congest in the lane, and rightfully so, they’re great scorers. So sometimes I’m open on the wing, and they’re able to execute the pass.”
But she hasn’t lost her efficiency at the hoop, either. She’s up over 50 percent again, a reminder of just how hard defenders find it to deny the big, strong Gray when she’s pointed downhill toward the hoop.
If anything, the way she’s shooting the three has opened up lanes for her, especially in transition. Per Synergy, her points per possession in the halfcourt are up—0.853 last year, 0.938 this year. But in transition? 1.179 last year, 1.545 this year. The latter rates best in the WNBA.
“I love playing in the open floor, especially with the wings and posts we have running the floor,” Gray said. “They can be so versatile, so many different spots, and it opens up the floor tremendously.”
The result is a Sparks attack so far that leads the league in offensive efficiency, up even from last year’s title-winning production. But the Sparks are eleventh in the league so far on the defensive end, an area Gray highlighted as her next point of emphasis to improve.
“I think we’re just very aggressive at the point of attack,” Gray said. “So I need to be quicker to the help side, because my teammates are so good at reading where the play is headed.”
Agler concurred, pointing out that for Gray to truly reach her potential, she’ll need to be performing as the playmaker for this Sparks team. It’s a luxury they have, developing Gray while a number of other players already facilitate, notably Parker, who managed to lead the WNBA in assist percentage in 2015.
“The best teams I’ve coached have multiple people on the floor with point guard skills, or who have that mentality,” Agler said. “So that’s what we have with Chelsea, Odyssey [Sims] and Candace on the floor. Because the ball moves quickly on the floor, and we can be creative.”
Sims is scheduled to return to practice this week after missing time due to injury, and Agler said he intends to play Sims and Gray together at times. Still, between the two of them, Beard, rookie sensation Sydney Wiese and veteran scorer Riquna Williams, there’s plenty of guard talent and only so many minutes to go around, particularly on a team that often plays big.
But don’t expect to see much less of Gray, whose emergence as a dual playmaker and scorer is something Agler and the Sparks plan to continue embracing.
“She’s good at that, so I don’t want to harness that,” Agler said. “But the other stuff that she needs to do as primary ball handler, decision maker, she needs to be top-notch in that, too.”
Against the Liberty, Gray’s shots were down, even though she opened the scoring with a strong drive to the hoop for a layup. Instead, she dished out six assists, turned it over just twice, and ran the offense capably in a Los Angeles win.
It is that consistency that Gray seeks—not of doing the same thing each game, but doing what the team needs from her in every game.
“I think it’s one thing to do it one game, two games,” Gray said. “But I need to do it all the time.”