On New Orleans Pelicans Media Day, when two-way contract player Josh Gray described how he hopes to be known on the basketball court, one of the colorful phrases he used was a “super pest” on defense. While the 6-foot-1 LSU product has lived up to that reputation this winter in the G League – his coaches call Gray a tough on-ball defender – he’s also become a super problem for opponents at the other end of the floor.
Through nine games played for New Orleans’ affiliate, the Erie Bayhawks, Gray is leading the G League in scoring, averaging 30.6 points. He’s also averaging 8.1 assists and shooting 49.1 percent from the field, all career highs in his three seasons of G League experience.
Asked what’s behind his major jump in production in 2019-20 (he averaged 19.4 points and 6.4 assists last season at that level), Gray said, “I’ve put in the work, and the game has slowed down for me. So it’s easier for me to break down a defense when I’m coming off a ball screen, explode into the paint and finish. I know when to pick my spots and when to get my shot off.”
A Lake Charles, La., native who went undrafted by the NBA in ’16, Gray put up modest numbers in college at LSU, as a part-time starter for the Tigers. He averaged 7.3 points and 2.9 assists over three NCAA seasons, which also included a freshman year at Texas Tech before transferring. His lack of college resume made it an uphill battle for Gray to prove himself at the pro level, as has his stature, but the 26-year-old is playing the best basketball of his career.
“I think the first thing most people look at is he’s a small guy,” said Pelicans two-way player developmental coach Teresa Weatherspoon, a Hall of Famer as a player. “But you might want to take another look, because he has a tremendous heart. He understands the game and is tremendously talented. He can get where he wants to on the floor, and in the open court he’s almost unstoppable. He’s working every day to become a better shooter, getting into the painted area and being able to finish just as well as anyone else.”
While Gray has developed into the G League’s No. 1 scorer early in ’19-20, he knows he must fill a different role whenever he’s called up to the NBA Pelicans, compared to playing for Erie (4-8). In the fall, Gray played in preseason for New Orleans and made two brief regular season appearances (he also had five games of official NBA experience with Phoenix during the ’17-18 campaign).
“When I have opportunities in New Orleans, B.I. (Brandon Ingram) is the leading scorer, and you have guys like JJ Redick and can’t take shots from him,” Gray said. “So my biggest thing is to figure out making the right reads and smart plays. I have to do a better job of figuring out where I can fit in.”
To that end, Gray is continuing to focus on improving in other areas beyond scoring, something that could give him a better chance to succeed on an NBA roster. While individual offense may be the fastest way to receive credit from media and casual fans, Weatherspoon lauds Gray for the progress he’s making in running an offense and trying to help shut down the other team’s attack.
“He’s finding other players around him (with passes), to make them much better, which is key, especially in the position he plays,” she said. “But the one thing I think people need to pay attention to is the guy plays defense. He hangs his hat there. He’s a hard worker and someone everyone should pay attention to.”