'Unsung' Gray may be best Deacon
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- The order of interviews wasn't deliberate. It just so happened that Chris Paul was before Justin Gray.
There was no hidden agenda. Paul went first. Gray second. Earlier in the day, Paul was the center of attention for a television shoot for ESPN, Gray wasn't.
Paul has already done a photo shoot for ESPN Magazine. Gray hasn't.
Paul. Paul. Paul. Paul.
|Still The Best?|
How do the defending champs at UConn measure up against Wake Forest?
The Huskies had two big-time stars a year ago, with the nation's best center in Emeka Okafor and the top shooting guard in Ben Gordon. Both are in the NBA, skipping their senior seasons.
Nonetheless, the Huskies still aren't too far behind the Demon Deacons, let alone Kansas, Georgia Tech and North Carolina.
Connecticut has, perhaps, the deepest frontline in the country with sophomores Charlie Villanueva, Josh Boone and Georgia Tech transfer Ed Nelson. Villanueva gives the Huskies an inside-out scorer, Boone provides putback rebounds and post-up play, and Nelson brings a tough, physical presence.
The Huskies also have a sharpshooting guard tandem in Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown and might have the top freshman in the country in Rudy Gay. He's a scoring wing who can put the ball on the floor, get to the basket and finish. Gay should be in a hotly contested race with North Carolina's Marvin Williams and Kentucky's Randolph Morris for national freshman of the year.
The biggest question mark is at the point. A.J. Price could have been the starter, but is recovering from a brain hemorrhage. He's not going to play this season. That leaves the position to Marcus Williams, who showed flashes playing behind Taliek Brown a year ago, but missed the second semester because of academics.
The Huskies will be a developing team that could be a serious threat come February. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said this team likely would lose a few games early, in part because it is still discovering its own identity. But don't think for a minute that the Huskies can't make a serious run to St. Louis. They can.
-- Andy Katz
The two roommates are close friends and inseparable on campus, until someone outside of Winston-Salem wants to start putting a face on the program. Then Paul goes out front while Gray stands in the back.
A sophomore point guard, Paul is becoming synonymous with Wake Forest as it hits the zenith of its preseason hype -- the Deacons are ESPN.com's No. 1 team and The Sporting News' pick to win the national title.
Putting Paul out front for Wake Forest is hard not to do. His infectious smile and personality bode well for the Demon Deacons. He's a likely first-team all-American. He's being billed as a potential top-five lottery pick in June's NBA draft.
He was the ACC rookie of the year last season, beating out Duke's Luol Deng. He was on the all-ACC defensive team. He scored 22 and 29 points in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, dishing out a total of 13 assists while committing just three turnovers in those games.
So, if we asked you who was the first-team all-ACC guard last season, Paul or Gray, your natural answer would be?
"Chris Paul," Gray said. "Because when people think about Wake Forest, they think about Chris Paul. When I go home [to Charlotte], they say to me, 'You've been doing good, but that Chris Paul...' That's how it is. There are no hard feelings.
"He's from Winston, he's a hometown hero for them and if you talk Wake Forest anything, you have to bring up Chris Paul."
The answer is quite alarming to those who aren't well versed in ACC basketball from a year ago.
Paul was third-team all-ACC. Gray was first.
And for the Demon Deacons to win the national title, they'll need to keep fooling folks that Gray is really the understudy to Paul on this squad. If anyone buys this (and we're convinced that the ACC coaches, given the respect involved in voting for him a year ago, don't), Wake's run just got a lot easier.
"A lot of people ask me what's it like to be one of the best players in the country and I keep saying that I might not be the best player in my dorm room, let alone my team," Paul said of his roommate and closest friend. "I always feel like when I go places with Justin, I feel inferior. He's an unbelievable player. He can really put the ball in the hole. We're both all about winning. We don't let it affect us. We're here to win games for Wake Forest and win a national championship."
"Justin gets over looked and it shouldn't be like that," Paul said. "I wouldn't be able do some of things [like getting loads of assists dishing off to his running mate on the perimeter] if it weren't for him."
Here are the facts: Gray, like Paul, won a gold medal playing for the USA this past summer at the World Championships for Young Men Qualifying team in Nova Scotia. Gray ranked second on the team in scoring (14.3 ppg) and led the team in 3s with 13. Paul averaged 10.5 points and 7.8 assists.
Yet, according to Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser and Gray, those "in the know" at USA Basketball weren't quite aware who was first-team all-ACC prior to the trials. Prosser said he had to remind Team USA coach Kelvin Sampson of Oklahoma that Gray, not Paul, was the first-team player.
Paul was a lock to be on the team as soon as he arrived for the tryouts in New Jersey in July. Gray came in as an afterthought, and a few days into camp he said he was like "the free agent," trying to make the team.
While Paul said he never doubted that his teammate would be on the squad, Gray said, "I had to earn my spot."
That's nothing new there.
Gray led Wake Forest in scoring (17 ppg), field goals (168), field-goal attempts (410), 3s (97), 3-point attempts (256), and averaged a team-high 19.7 points against nationally-ranked teams and 20.1 points in road games last season.
Paul is viewed as the team's playmaker and, perhaps, its most valuable player. Gray is the team's most valued scorer and, to the rest of the team and coaches, its unquestioned leader.
"Those that don't appreciate his value are clearly misinformed," Prosser said. "You have to account for him offensively at all times. He can hit two or three 3s, bang, bang, bang and give you a cushion. He's the first sophomore to be first-team all-ACC here since Tim Duncan.
"Certain players give other players courage," Prosser said. "Justin is fearless, no matter what venue we go into, Justin feels like he'll get it done."
The road stat is probably his most impressive. Players filed into the interview room Thursday with ESPN.com and repeated the same two words about Gray: courageous and fearless.
"He could miss 10 shots in a row but then he'll take that 11th and make it," said senior guard Taron Downey.
"When the clock is running down, some people start to look at other people to take a shot," Paul said. "I know that when the clock is running down, he'll be ready with his hands up to shoot. If you give Justin a split second to catch the ball and look at the rim, you're in trouble."
Wake Forest has its deficiencies. It allowed ACC teams to make 47.6 percent of their shots and 38.8 percent on 3s (on their way to 80.4 points a game) last season. The Deacons blocked only 48 shots (compared to getting 68 of theirs blocked).
The biggest perceived knock on this team, though, is that it may not be as tough as it needs to be to win the title. And there, again, the burden falls on Gray to deliver, picking up where Josh Howard left off two years ago when the ACC player of the year pushed the Demon Deacons to the league title.
"I bring a little bit of a swagger," Gray said. "I'll be the one to knock the ball out of someone's hands and get something going if we need energy. I'll talk to the refs a bit to rile everyone up. I can call a timeout by myself if we're playing flat. We shouldn't have to wait for coach to say something.
"I'm going to get in a guy's face on our team and let them know if they've done something wrong but I want them to let me know, too," Gray said. "There are no hard feelings and I don't want them to hold back."
Paul and Gray spent the whole summer together: a family cruise (with Williams, too), Nike camp, USA Basketball and the Jordan Camp in California. They usually hit the gym together, too, taking tons of shots, no matter the time of day.
Yet, the media loves Paul, who tries to quietly go about his business of handling oodles of requests for photo shoots and interviews.
"I try to do things that my teammates don't know about because I never want them to think I have a big head," Paul said. "I hope they all know it's not about me. It's about the team and everything I do, I always have Wake Forest on my chest."
"I know everything he does," Gray said with a hearty laugh. "I'm his roommate. He was doing some dribbling exhibition and he called me up to come over and be in it. I said, 'OK.' It's better that it's somebody than nobody getting the attention. The more attention we get, the more fans we'll have."
Ever since the loss to Saint Joseph's in the Sweet 16, Paul and Gray have talked about getting to the start of the season, and making the run to St. Louis. Gray said he marveled at how poised Jameer Nelson and Delonte West were down the stretch in the Hawks' win. He is expecting that the Demon Deacons would mirror that behavior in games this season and come March.
The Demon Deacons start practice at 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning, even though they're not holding Midnight Madness. They know the target is on their back as the team to beat in the ACC (along with North Carolina and Georgia Tech). Nationally, they're right there with Kansas as one of the top choices to win the title.
And if they do, it will be because of Paul and Gray, or maybe Gray and Paul. That's the way they would want the headline to read.
"We're both all about winning," Paul said. "We're here to win games for Wake Forest and win a national championship."
1. The new Vytas Danelius: Prosser is viewing Danelius as a newcomer this season. Huh? He's a senior ... how does that work? Well, Danelius was, shall we say, not Danelius last season. He was hurt quite a bit, struggling to play in only 25 of 31 games with tendinitis in his right knee, a bruised bone in his ankle and then a high ankle sprain.
"He's light years ahead of where he was at this time last year," Prosser said of his senior forward. "He's so much more prepared mentally and physically. You didn't know what you were going to get last year with him."
Neither did Danelius.
"Everything I had built up as a sophomore (second-team all-ACC with 12.3 ppg) is gone now," Danelius said of his 5.9 points a game last season. "I guess in a sense, coach Prosser is right. This is a new start."
Prosser pulled Danelius into his office after the team returned from East Rutherford, N.J., following the loss to Saint Joseph's in the Sweet 16 and told Danelius that he needed to work harder over the summer and that he was needed this season. So, Danelius stayed in Winston-Salem the whole summer. He had access to the gym 24-7. He took 500 shots a day on some trips to the gym.
"Last year, that wasn't the real Vytas," Gray said. "After the year he had as a sophomore, everyone expected so much from him. He's back to that, making j's and shooting inside and out. His game looks funny and looks like it shouldn't work, but it does."
2. Jamaal Levy, stat stuffer: Prosser's hidden gem on this squad is the senior forward. He calls him a "stat stuffer," and adds, "unless you're insightful about asking, you wouldn't realize his contributions."
Maybe so, but you don't have to be too insightful to understand that Levy led the Deacons in rebounding (8.4 rpg), was fourth in scoring (10.3 ppg), tied for second in field-goal percentage (53.8), led the team in blocked shots (27) and averaged 11 points and 9.1 rebounds on the road.
He's probably characterized as a role player on this squad, but his role is to do a little bit of everything (save take too many 3s). He's another critical piece for the Deacons to win the title.
3. Eric Williams' foul issues: The biggest issue facing the Demon Deacons might be figuring out a way for Williams to play with multiple fouls. The 6-9 power player averaged 12.4 points and 5.6 boards despite struggling, at times, to stay on the floor. He fouled out of seven games and committed a team-high 108 fouls.
Prosser's hope is that with a healthy Danelius, along with Chris Ellis, Trent Strickland and Kyle Visser, Williams won't have to play with four fouls as much. But that question remains to be answered.