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Chelsea Gray provides moxie, savvy to Aces’ title chase

They call her the Point God in Las Vegas. A playfully divine nod to her three-level scoring, precocious pick-and-roll play and, of course, her inventive passing.

But Alana Beard has a different nickname for her former teammate turned Aces point guard Chelsea Gray.

“I call her Clutchy,” said Beard, a four-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year who won a championship in 2016 alongside Gray with the Los Angeles Sparks. “She relished those (big) moments. … We all had confidence in her having that ball in her hands.”

So do the Aces.

Gray, 28, doesn’t just provide Las Vegas with All-Star caliber point guard play. She also provides a moxie and savvy derived from her successes on the sport’s biggest stages. She’s the only WNBA champion on the roster, having won the title in 2016 with the Sparks and reaching the finals again the following year.

And she provides a sense of calm to the Aces, who face a pivotal Game 3 on Sunday at the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA semifinals with the best-of-five series tied 1-1.

“People look at her and be like, ‘Oh, the things she can do with the basketball are amazing.’ But her leadership on the court and the way that she calms us down, puts us at pace, is something that I really wanted to play alongside of,” said Aces teammate A’ja Wilson, who helped recruit Gray during free agency.

Preparing for prime time

Gray grew up in Manteca, California, a town of almost 80,000 tucked an hour south of Sacramento and 90 minutes east of the Bay Area.

As a natural point guard, she idolized Magic Johnson, Steve Nash, Jason Williams and Ticha Penicheiro, and admired the creativity with which they passed the basketball.

By junior high, she was an established Division I prospect, securing her first letter, from UNR, when she was in eighth grade. By her senior season, she was a McDonald’s All-American with a flair for the flamboyant as one of the best players in the high school class of 2010.

“That was an eye opener for all of us,” said her older brother, Javon. “She was always playing basketball. She really didn’t have that outside, teenager life.”

Gray was courted by all the powerhouse college programs, even playing through a severe shoulder injury so her recruitment wouldn’t be compromised. She wanted to play for a program that hadn’t won a national championship.

And that program was Duke, where she would star from 2010 to 2014.

She arrived on campus with an acumen so advanced that unsuspecting teammates wouldn’t catch her passes. Her college coach, Joanne P. McCallie, compared her to Johnson.

“Program changer,” McCallie said. “She loves the ball in her hands, and she’s very confident, and I would say that was very instant. … The use of her no-look, the use of her flair, that’s the unique thing about Chelsea — it serves a purpose.”

Gray promptly earned McCallie’s trust and was empowered to take control in pressure situations. Older teammates willingly deferred to Gray, whose playfully humble demeanor still eases those around her.

“Chelsea knew where the ball should go, when, before that person was getting it knew it. And they were OK with that from the beginning.” former Blue Devils assistant Candice M. Jackson said.

Duke ascended to No. 2 in The Associated Press rankings. But knee injuries prematurely ended Gray’s junior and senior seasons of 2012-13 and 2013-14, preventing her from playing in the Final Four.

‘Clutchy’

Gray was picked No. 11 overall by the Connecticut Sun in the 2014 WNBA draft. She missed what was supposed to be her rookie season recovering from knee surgery and debuted during the 2015 season, playing all 34 games as a reserve.

Her play in a game against the Sparks piqued the interest of their former coach, Brian Agler, who traveled to Europe that offseason to watch her play abroad. He introduced himself after that particular game and traded for her before the 2016 season, thereby changing the trajectory of her career.

In Los Angeles, Gray was suddenly surrounded by a cast that included Beard, Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike — three of the most esteemed and accomplished players in WNBA history. The collective helped raise her professional standard, and she adapted to the championship caliber culture that permeated the franchise.

Gray was a reserve again that season, backing up Kristi Toliver as the Sparks rolled to the second-best record in the WNBA. But behind the scenes, Agler was relentless in the way he coached Gray during practices in an effort to help her hone her prodigious talent.

Agler said he saw “greatness” in Gray and sought to eliminate some of the risk that her style often incorporated. He also admired the flair and creativity with which she played. But there’s a time and place for it.

And it’s usually not in crunch time.

She was receptive and earned the trust of her coach and teammates. With the championship on the line in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals against the Minnesota Lynx, Agler called on Gray to resuscitate an ailing offense.

She responded by scoring 11 consecutive points during the third and fourth quarters to prevent Minnesota from pulling away and ultimately clinch her first WNBA championship.

“It was amazing how a group of people and so many different personalities come together for one common purpose,” Gray said. “I was able to build and just learn, be able to come here to Vegas to give what I learned.”

Gray blossomed in Los Angeles the following season, with Toliver’s departure to Washington paving the way for her to assume the role as the franchise’s starting point guard. The veterans willfully deferred to her, trusting her with the ball in crucial moments.

She continued to thrive in Los Angeles, averaging 14.6 points and 5.2 assists while shooting 46.1 percent from the field in four years as a starter.

Gray visited Las Vegas last year as a restricted free agent before committing this year to play for the Aces, who sought an upgrade at the point after losing last year in the WNBA Finals.

“She’s been there and done that. Just the experience and having more great players on our team is what we’re trying to get accomplished,” Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said. “She’s a big-shot player.”

Including a couple this season.

Laimbeer deferred to Gray down the stretch in June against the defending champion Seattle Storm, allowing her to call the play that preceded her go-ahead jumper with 10.6 seconds remaining. She added another game-winning shot in August against the Washington Mystics.

“She’s been in these situations before,” Wilson said. “I’m glad that I can share it with someone that’s been there before. That’s been in these big moments.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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