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‘The team is hers’: All-Star nears critical return for Aces, Olympics

Updated June 12, 2024 - 7:48 pm

For the first time since October, Chelsea Gray’s status on the Aces’ injury report was upgraded to “questionable” on Wednesday.

And just like that, conversations surrounding the WNBA’s two-time reigning champions shifted. The Aces (5-5) suffered their third consecutive loss Tuesday night at the hands of the Minnesota Lynx, but with Gray seemingly nearing her season debut, the floodgates of optimistic social media posts from fans have opened once again.

That’s the power of the “Point Gawd.”

Gray might make her season debut when the Aces play at the Phoenix Mercury (6-6) at 7 p.m. Thursday.

The 31-year-old is joining three other Aces All-Stars at the 2024 Paris Olympics on the U.S. women’s basketball team, whose roster was officially revealed Tuesday. In the lead-up to that announcement, Gray’s teammates and others across the league emphasized her importance to Team USA and the Aces.

Cheryl Reeve, Lynx coach and president of basketball operations, is leading the coaching staff for the Olympic team. After observing Gray during the 2021 Tokyo Games, Reeve said the guard is key to Team USA’s success this year.

“She was the heir apparent. She was still playing behind Sue (Bird) on that last one,” Reeve said before Tuesday’s game. “Now, the team is hers.”

It’s an unexpected development from Gray’s perspective, as she is one of just four players on Team USA who wasn’t a No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick. A knee injury cut her senior year at Duke short, and she was selected at No. 11 by the Connecticut Sun in 2014.

“Whether I’m playing or not right now — being one of 12 to put on an Olympic jersey? I’ll never take that for granted,” Gray told the Review-Journal on Tuesday. “I didn’t think it was going to end up like this when I first started in this profession. It’s crazy.”

Gray is faced with the pressure of leading a national team seeking its eighth straight Olympic gold medal and 10th overall. But Reeve said she doesn’t feel that Gray, a three-time WNBA champion and the 2022 Finals MVP, has much to learn.

“It’s just more of, you know, getting her there,” Reeve said. “Her leadership, her voice — just like what you see with the Aces — when she’s on the floor, everybody’s better, and that’s what she brings to the national team.”

What’s the holdup?

Without their point guard for their first 10 games, the Aces have clearly missed the Gray effect to which Reeve alluded.

Gray was sidelined for the title-clinching Game 4 of the 2023 Finals against the New York Liberty because of a left foot injury. She was able to participate in the U.S. national team’s February 2024 training camp, but couldn’t compete in the 2024 FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament.

Gray has yet to participate in any Aces practices that media could view, but she has gradually been incorporated into team warmups and drills.

The slow ramp-up has been somewhat against Gray’s will, Aces coach Becky Hammon said.

“She’s progressing,” Hammon said last week. “Probably not as fast as she wants, but I’m trying to hold her back as long as possible to be just extra cautious. She’s chomping at the bit to get back out there and get out there with her teammates.”

Jackie Young, Kelsey Plum and A’ja Wilson, all also headed to the Olympics, have frequently referred to Gray as a second coach on the sideline this season. Following a loss to the Seattle Storm on Friday, Hammon said the team wasn’t “whole” without its point guard.

“I think people are guarding us differently because she’s not out there,” Plum said after Tuesday’s loss. “But I also think a lot of the wounds that we have are self-inflicted.”

‘Headband of eyeballs’

With Gray’s new status, the Aces are approaching a new reality on the court.

“She’s the best point guard in the world,” Hammon said Sunday in response to a question about what fans could expect to see from Gray in her return.

Los Angeles Sparks coach Curt Miller, a scout for the Olympic team, used the same descriptor to talk about Gray earlier this season.

“She sees everything,” Hammon added. “A headband of eyeballs. That’s how good her vision is. So I can’t wait for them to see her play. She’s magical.”

Contact Callie Lawson-Freeman at clawsonfreeman@reviewjournal.com. Follow @CallieJLaw on X.

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