Can Chelsea Gray guide Aces to back-to-back WNBA titles?

Michael Voepel, ESPN.comOct 11, 2023, 08:15 AM ET

CloseMichael Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

LAS VEGAS — CHELSEA GRAY LOVES cooking with her family as much as playing basketball with her Las Vegas Aces.

“Our big family time was always in the kitchen,” Gray said of growing up in California. “My parents and my brothers, chopping up stuff, figuring out what we were going to make.”

She jokes now that while her wife handles “just about everything else,” Gray is the primary cook in their home. Turkey meatballs are one of her specialties.

The same person who is so adept at putting together her favorite dishes also excels at orchestrating the Aces. Gray — nicknamed “Point Gawd” around the league — and the Aces look to take a commanding lead over the New York Liberty in the WNBA Finals in Game 2 on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) at Michelob Ultra Arena.

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In Sunday’s best-of-five series opener, a 99-82 Aces win, Gray had 20 points, nine assists and six rebounds as part of a perimeter attack the Liberty couldn’t slow. In the regular season, she averaged 15.3 points and 7.3 assists; she’s at 16.7 and 6.8 in the playoffs.

Gray was the missing ingredient for the Aces when she joined them as a free agent in 2021. The Aces had three former No. 1 draft picks in A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum. Gray helped take them to another level.

The Aces played in the WNBA Finals in 2020 but were swept by the Seattle Storm. In 2021, the Aces lost in the semifinals to the Phoenix Mercury. Last year, with Gray having a phenomenal postseason, Las Vegas won the championship over the Connecticut Sun.

“That’s why they call her the Point Gawd,” Plum said. “Because Gods deliver.”



Chelsea Gray celebrates after backdoor assist to Jackie Young

Chelsea Gray finds Jackie Young wide open on a backdoor pass to give the Aces a layup.

LAST YEAR’S TITLE was a full circle moment for Gray, who was drafted by the Sun in 2014.

“I will never forget this: The Connecticut Sun gave me a chance,” Gray said.

Gray was WNBA Finals MVP last season and hopes to lead the Aces to a repeat. She has two WNBA titles and an Olympic gold medal on her résumé, and after nine years in the league, has cemented her place as one of its best point guards.

Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut1,653Breanna Stewart, New York1,476Chelsea Gray, Las Vegas1,472Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas1,411Courtney Vandersloot, New York1,335

It wasn’t always this way. A fractured kneecap cut short Gray’s college career at Duke in January 2014, a year after another season-ending knee injury ended her junior season.

“It was the lowest point,” Gray said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I kept going back to my mom and dad, and they said, ‘Look, whatever else happens, you have your degree.’ Man, it was hard.”

At age 21, Gray had no idea if she could fulfill a childhood dream. She had grown up a fan of the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs and their point guard, Ticha Penicheiro.

But in the 2014 draft, Connecticut took Gray with the 11th pick, and she sat out that season rehabbing. She averaged 6.9 points and 2.7 assists as a reserve with the Sun in 2015.

“Big games, big moments, we know she gets on these out-of-the-world runs.”

Coach Becky Hammon on Chelsea Gray

Then came the trade that changed her trajectory. Gray went to the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016 and helped them win a WNBA championship. The Sparks’ veterans helped her mature as a professional.

“Being around players like Candace Parker and Alana Beard taught me so much,” Gray said. “Things like how to think ahead, knowing the scout, how to approach each game and how to prepare for the playoffs.

“I tried to absorb everything from them, on the court, at dinners. It opens your mind up to so many possibilities and strategies.”

GRAY’S PRECISION IS also complemented by her flair. As she puts it, “there’s a real enjoyment” she plays with. Aces coach Becky Hammon said Gray sees the game at a higher level than anyone she has coached.

“She’s one of the most competitive people I know,” Hammon said. “You feel really good when Chelsea is on your team. Big games, big moments, we know she gets on these out-of-the-world runs.

“And she’s a studier. If we don’t play well, she goes back and watches it and takes it personally. Her scoring and her passing are always going to be there. But her ability now to go rebound and her defense are difference-makers for us.”

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The connection between Hammon and Gray was immediate. Hammon was a point guard for 16 years in the WNBA, a player who depended on her wits, her scrappiness and her competitiveness to excel. Hammon said Gray has additional gifts, but all the things that made Hammon successful are also in Gray.

“You have to have great vision, but if you don’t have the personnel to go with it, it won’t work,” Gray said. “You’ll see a lot of turnovers stack up. But I also think with maturity comes some freedom. I have [that] with a coach who trusts me. Like, she’s seen how many times a behind-the-back pass is successful vs. not.

“I also watch a lot of film and know where people are going to be. If you do that, you can go to another level IQ-wise.”

Gray is many years past the uncertainty she felt coming into the league. Yet those times haven’t completely dimmed. In some ways, they still motivate Gray.

“Sometimes I hear that I play with grace,” Gray said. “I think that’s a good word. Yes, there are many moments where it’s very intense, or I might be yelling. But I think the joy I play with comes from those memories of when I really didn’t know if I was going to continue playing because of my knee.

“Now, all these years later, I’m here. I’ve been a WNBA champion; I’ve been an Olympian. It’s kind of crazy, the route I took. It wasn’t instant gratification. But I think the way I play shows the journey.”

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