Posted: Monday August 15, 2005 5:39PM; Updated: Tuesday August 16, 2005 2:22AM
Despite being a year older than Paul, Gray gleaned valuable pointers from the Winston-Salem-grown phenom who was selected No. 4 overall by the New Orleans Hornets in June. In addition to partners in the Deacon backcourt, they were best friends and roommates, and still talk daily. Gray watched Paul's Las Vegas summer-league games for the Hornets on TV, and knows Paul will be catching as many Wake telecasts as possible during his rookie season in the NBA "He always critiques me," Gray said of Paul.
In one conversation, Paul playfully told Gray that, "There's no more mayor in town at Wake," to which Gray responded, "I know -- I'm going to have to step up and be the sheriff."
When it comes to running the show, however, do not expect the would-be sheriff to emulate the mayor. "Chris was a blow-it-up type point guard," Prosser said, "whereas I wouldn't say that Justin is a jet with the basketball. He has a very high IQ for the game, though. That will translate to really good decisions on the fly." Two weeks ago at the U.S. Under-21 trials in Dallas, Gray said that while "I'm not the quickest guy, I can maneuver," and the NBA point-guard prototypes he has been studying recently are scorers by nature -- guys such as the T'wolves' Sam Cassell, the master of the midrange game, and the Pistons' Chauncey Billups, a clutch outside shooter.
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With the ball now in his hands instead of Paul's, many of Gray's shots will have to come differently -- off the dribble, and increasingly inside the arc -- rather than from camping on the wings. "It's going to be a challenge," Gray said, "and the key is not to try to do it all myself."
Gray served as a two-guard in Argentina on fifth-place U.S. U-21 team (which had Kentucky's Rajon Rondo and UConn's Marcus Williams as its points) and averaged 11.8 points per game, second-best on the squad, but in summer pickup games at Wake he has been working on honing the "attack" mentality Prosser expects from the No. 1 position in his offense. It was telling that Prosser, in keeping tabs on Gray's play in both the Global Games and the U-21 World Championship this summer, seemed to be most interested in how many times he was getting to the line (Gray shot just 11 free throws in eight games on the U.S. team). "Justin didn't shoot a lot of free throws last year because Chris was the one taking the ball into the lane," Prosser said. "He can't play as if there's an invisible fence [on the 3-point line] -- he has to be driving inside and getting knocked down." (Indeed, Gray, a 78.8-percent free-throw shooter last season, took 118 FTs compared to Paul's 187 in '04-05).
In an age where players are so conscious of their NBA Draft stock, no one wants to be pigeonholed as "just a shooting guard" or a "tweener." But when the 6-2 Gray makes the assertion that, "I'm not a position player -- I'm a guard who can play either the one or two," he actually has the resume to back it up. His year-by-year positional progression in college reads like a full-court press on steroids: 1-2-2-1. As a freshman point he averaged 12.1 points and 3.6 assists before breaking his jaw and missing most of the ACC season; as a sophomore alongside Paul he exploded into a first-team All-ACC two-guard with a 16.8 points-per-game average and as a junior, he was the ACC's second-team two-guard behind Duke's J.J. Redick.
Now, as a senior, he's right back where he started at Wake -- the point -- looking to prove himself well enough to join Paul at the position in the NBA. Gray had a 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in '04-05 (compared to Paul's 2.4-to-1), but that should improve as he acquires a different perspective of the Deacons' offense. "I've been playing a long time in the ACC," said Gray, "and I know the tricks of the trade, so I think I'll be all right."
And if he should run into any trouble, expect the mayor to phone home with advice.