If you have a minute and change to spare — and I'd assume so
since you've opened this piece — I want you to watch this video.
It's an assist compilation of Las Vegas Aces star Chelsea Gray from
Tuesday night's win over the Atlanta Dream. It includes 5 of her
game-high 9 assists.
The assists, in order:
- A pick-and-roll with A'ja Wilson (MVP, by the way) in which
Gray freezes Cheyenne Parker (Wilson's defender) with a hesi,
forces a rotation from Naz HIllmon (#00) with her drive and waits
out the secondary rotation from Rhyne Howard (#10, Rookie of the
Year front-runner) before firing to Jackie Young
- A full-court lead pass to Young after a singular dribble
- An instantaneous feed to Wilson through a pair of defenders
after a loose-ball scramble
- A 20-plus-feet behind-the-back bounce pass (?????) to a cutting
- A no-look feed to Young after a drive in transition
Highlight films are typically dangerous for narrative-driven
minds. With just a few clips, you can present a chapter as a
full-blown story. But I assure you that this isn't a doctored
snippet; this is who Chelsea Gray, The W's #PointGawd, really
The numbers don't do her justice, though it's worth noting that
she's averaging a career-high in assists this season (6.2 per
game). Only three players — Courtney Vandersloot, Natasha Cloud and
Sue Bird — are assisting more than Gray on a per-possession basis.
But to appreciate Gray's playmaking ability, you have to watch.
Her cadence is different. The angles she spots for passes are
almost unheard of for mere mortals; the angles she can
create are more rare. There isn't a pass in the book
she can't make; more importantly, there isn't a pass that she won't
If those descriptors sound familiar, it's because they've been
used — reserved, even — for legends. Magic Johnson was and is the
standard for that sort of creativity on the NBA side. Ticha
Penicheiro — the league's all-time assist leader until Bird passed
her in 2017 — certainly fits the bill for The W. You can see their
inspiration shine through Gray's game.
"With Magic, it was everything he could do as a bigger point
guard," Gray told Basketball News in a Zoom interview. "It was how
he incorporated flashiness too. Being able to balance effectiveness
with a little flash."
While Magic helped with broad strokes, you can thank
Penicheiro's influence for Gray's affinity for no-look passes.
"With Ticha, her ability to look
at a completely different person but pass it somewhere else
always intrigued me," Gray said. "I used to look to the side and
try to hit a pole [to practice]."
A throughline with Magic, Penicheiro and Gray is the ability to
see plays develop before they happen. It's an obvious gift; it's
easier to beat a defense if you're ahead of them conceptually. But
there is an obvious drawback: It's a gift because only a few
players can see the game that way.
What is genius if it isn't understood? It's likely a turnover in
Like many great playmakers before her, Gray has to walk a
tightrope between doing her thing and coloring inside the lines.
It's also the responsibility of the coach to help find that
balance. She certainly felt that during the early portion of her
Los Angeles Sparks tenure.
"It's like, if [the passes] go through, they're good. If they
didn't, it'd be so terrible; 'I don't know what she saw; I don't
know what that was (laughs),'" Gray said. "But as my game
progressed and I got a little smarter about when to make certain
passes, there was more of a balance.
"There's always a balance of not taking away the player and
their effectiveness, but reeling them in so they're within what
you're trying to accomplish."
When watching a Gray pick-and-roll, or a no-look, or a
transition touchdown, it's hard not to wonder how she makes
decisions. Luckily, Gray was kind enough to not only answer that
question broadly, but also talk through some of her assists from
this season for further insight with Basketball News.
(This interview has been lightly edited for
When you're making fancier reads, are any of those
predetermined? What goes into your process?
Chelsea Gray: "It's a mixture of what the
defense is doing, and my head.
"Sometimes I feel like the most 'complicated' way to get it
there is the easiest way for me to get it there, or the quickest or
most efficient. I was just having a conversation about a simple
thing like a pick-and-pop. Me doing a bounce pass behind the back
is the easiest, most efficient way to get it there, so my teammate
has a wide-open shot rather than spinning in a circle to throw the
"Sometimes, maybe I could do that, but [the
behind-the-back bounce pass] is the most efficient way for me to do
that to make sure my teammate has an easier read when they catch
With great playmakers, I'm always curious about their
process, and what or who they're reading on the floor. When you're
running a ball-screen, what are the kind of things you're looking
Gray: "My initial read is seeing how my
defender is guarding me. If they're playing off, that changes my
angle going into the pick-and-roll. From there, I'm looking at my
post player or whoever's setting the screen to see how their
defender is guarding them — are they (the screener's defender)
going to jump out?
"Some pick-and-rolls are defended differently based on who's
setting the screen. Defenses might play it one way when Kiah Stokes
is involved, but a different way if it's Dearica Hamby or A'ja
Wilson. My teammates also do different things. Kiah, most of the
time, is going to roll while the others may mix in
"All of that is going into my head when heading into a
ball-screen. Then, it's like, 'If this happens, then
this happens.' That's the repetitive nature of
running so many pick-and-rolls throughout my career. When a
defender does something, they're giving up something else. From
there, it's about how to make the right decision as quickly as
You mentioned how defensive coverages may differ based
on who's screening for you. Who's the best screener on the
Gray: "That's so hard. Honestly, it does
depend on the coverage they're getting. Against Dallas (on Aug. 4),
Teaira McCowan was hitting A'ja and wasn't letting her screen. But
because of that, I was able to hit her on the roll off the back
side. Kiah tries to head-hunt every single time
(laughs), so the angle is different.
"It's hard to say who the best pick-and-roll player is. Like,
Dearica Hamby will hit and just go, super quickly. So it'll look
like, 'Whoa, what a great screen,' but really, there was a lot of
indecision on the defensive end. She's able to get us both open
because she creates some thought in their head like, 'Oh snap, I'm
hit; what are we doing on our coverage?' It really depends."
With this pick-and-roll (video below), this ends up
being a pass to Iliana Rupert. It looks like you're flowing out of
HORNS. When you get the first screen, are you gauging what the big
(NaLyssa Smith) is doing first?
Gray: "Yeah, I'm seeing what this big is
doing here. I see Emily Engstler sink in for the help because
Destanni Henderson is hit with the screen. I know Iliana Rupert is
going to be open on the pop; it's a simple HORNS action."
I have two transition clips to share now. In the first
one, you find Kelsey Plum trailing the play. She makes a move and
gets the bucket; you get the assist on this one. In the second one,
you hit a streaking Jackie Young. When you're making these
full-court hit-aheads, which defender are you reading? What
determines where you go with the ball?
Gray: "As we cross half court, our angles
have to be clear and concise. As we're running, we know one big
will run down the floor while the other will trail the play. As the
trailer, Dearica Hamby will either come set a drag screen, or I'll
pass to her and she'll flow to the next side."
"So if you pause it when Kelsey catches the ball, I'm reading to
see if A'ja's defender picked her up, and if Dearica's defender
picked her up. Indiana is pretty much matched up; they did a solid
job in transition defense.
"Personally, I don't know if I would've counted this as an
assist. I just get it there for her to be able to make a move.
After the initial catch, she has to make a good and solid move to
get into the paint and finish.
"This second one, on the other hand, people are just flying down
the court. Kiah Stokes actually gets Jackie open by the way she
runs the floor. Kayla Thornton feels like, 'Oh shoot, [Kiah's]
going; Teaira McCowan, help!' Meanwhile, Jackie is streaking down
"I see all of that unfolding, and that's on top of them being
concerned about A'ja filling in. Jackie's able to knock the shot
down, right in the flow."
We have to talk about the falling pass to Kelsey Plum!
You get a screen from Kiah Stokes. We have good defense from
Brittney Sykes. When did you decide you're going to find the angle
for the pass that way?
Gray: "Really, I decided in the moment. I
saw it afterwards and was like, 'I know I fell, but I
had to fall to get it there.' I felt that it would've
been a turnover or Brittney Sykes would've gotten her hand on it.
The way I fell was a bit of a dramatic fall, but it
"It took all of my power in order to get it there. The angle and
the rate in which [Kelsey Plum] was cutting was all going into my
thought process. So I was like, 'Alright, I have to fall or else
it's not going to get there.' If I threw a straight bounce pass,
the defender would've gotten it."
Alright, last one for the fancy passes.
A behind-the-back pass on a
Gray: "To me, it was simple. In the
moment, I realized what I did, but I got excited because the play
that we called — we hadn't scored on it yet.
"If you pause it here, Tiffany Mitchell is already beat:
"But I can't make a bounce pass there with Lexie Hull right
there. There's no possible way. So the only way I feel that I can
get it there is by going behind the back.
"If you keep going... right there:
"I would have to angle my body to be able to throw a chest pass.
Hull might be able to get a hand on it, or Jackie [Young] won't be
able to finish it. So if I look one way, it just takes half a step
for Hull to come over, and I'm able to get the angle for
"Honestly, a lot of times when I do the behind-the-back or a
fancy pass, it's the quickest, most efficient way I feel it can get
there. It's not like, 'Let me do this pass because it'll be on a
highlight reel.' Sometimes I want to add a little no-look flair to
it, and I probably could've gotten it there by looking at her. But
the fanciness of the curve, or behind-the-back, or behind-the head
— that's the quickest way for me to get it there without a
turnover. Maybe that's just ridiculous (laughs)."
No, I don't think so at all! On the no-look front: When
you're watching others, does it bother you when players fake it?
Sometimes, it's obvious that a player will stare their teammate
down before looking off and making it seem like a real
Gray: (Laughs) "Maybe that's their version of
the way they want to do a no-look! I don't know, it doesn't bother
me. As long as they get the assist, they should be fine with the
way they're doing it."