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Sparks' Chelsea Gray growing into one of WNBA's best point guards

In her third WNBA season, Chelsea Gray has started all six games in 2017 and is averaging 14.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Chelsea Gray scored a game-high 20 points in Game 4 of last year's WNBA Finals against Minnesota. In the decisive Game 5, she scored 11 straight points for the Sparks between the third and fourth quarters, singlehandedly turning a four-point deficit into a one-point advantage before Los Angeles clinched the title.

Yet neither performance is the one Gray's teammates or Sparks' coach Brian Agler remember as her statement game last season.

Instead, they unanimously point to Sept. 6, 2016, a regular-season home game against the Lynx in which Gray scored a team-high 20 points. And you need to go back even further to really appreciate the performance.

In a closely contested game against Dallas on Sept. 2, Gray -- who was averaging 15 minutes per game at the time -- barely left the bench. She entered the game just once, totaling three minutes in the first half while then-Sparks' point guard Kristi Toliver caught her breath.

"I didn't go into it thinking she wasn't going to play, it just sort of ended up being that way," Agler said, adding that he texted Gray an apology after the game. "Her response was, 'I was happy that we won, and I'll be ready for the next one.'"

In the Sparks' ensuing game, Gray's 20-point night in just 18 minutes came by way of a giant fourth quarter. She scored 13 of the Sparks' final 17 points to keep Los Angeles in contention down the stretch. It also marked the start of a five-game run in which Gray averaged double digits (and shot 67 percent from the field) to end the regular season.

"I call that her breakout game because it showed us a mental toughness that you don't see in someone that age," Sparks' veteran guard Alana Beard said. "She didn't take it personally that she didn't play the game before -- which she should've. She came back the next game and was completely ready. That showed me a lot about her as a person and as a player."

The performance erased any doubt that Gray was primed for an increased role, especially as Toliver left Los Angeles and signed with Washington. Now Gray, in her third WNBA season, is the Sparks' floor general and has helped orchestrate the defending champions to a 4-2 start.

"I knew I had to come in with a mindset of being better than I was last season, and that's been my focus," Gray said, adding that she didn't feel any kind of pressure stepping into the role. "I just felt a sense of responsibility to make sure things run smoothly at the point guard position. That's your job each and every night you step out."

Through six games this season, Gray is averaging 14.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists -- all of which best Toliver's season averages from a year ago.

"I think she's started off pretty well," Agler said. "I know our team has a chance to be as good as it possibly can if she's playing well."

"I told her that in two to three years she's going to be the best point guard in the league. She has a knack for the game, she has a calmness about her. She can do everything."

Alana Beard, recalling a conversation she had a year ago with teammate Chelsea Gray

Ask Gray about her career-high 25 points she had against Atlanta on May 27, and she immediately offers perspective. The Sparks lost, so the personal milestone didn't mean a whole lot.

"She's a selfless player," Beard said. "It's never been about Chelsea."

For Gray, being able to suit up and play the game she loves is enough. As a junior at Duke in 2013, Gray suffered a dislocated right knee after taking an eye-covering fall against Wake Forest. The injury ended a season in which she had been averaging 12.6 points and 5.4 assists. In 2014, just 11 months later, Gray fractured the same knee against Boston College, ending her college career 17 games into her senior season (she was averaging 10.8 PPG and 7.2 APG).

Gray's injury history undoubtedly hurt her draft stock, but Connecticut selected her at No. 11 overall, knowing she'd sit out a season to continue to rehab her injured knee. The Sparks acquired Gray in 2016 in a trade that sent the trade rights of Jonquel Jones to the Sun.

While Gray grew up a Monarchs' fan, idolizing the play of Sacramento guard Ticha Penicheiro, hoisting the 2016 championship trophy as a member of the Sparks was just as gratifying.

"It was amazing; it was time we brought a championship to the city of Los Angeles," Gray said. "We got our rings this year, they're beautiful. I want another one."

The 5-foot-11 Gray is one of the taller guards in the league, which presents an advantage for her almost everywhere on the court. She can create off the dribble against larger defenders. In the paint she's found success posting up smaller guards.

Gray's game is best, however, in the open court. Teammate Candace Parker, last year's WNBA Finals MVP, said Gray is "unstoppable" when she is able to control the pace on the floor and showcase her heightened passing ability. Both Beard and Parker compared Gray's game to that of Nikki Teasley, "but with a motor," Beard added.

"Her court vision and her ability to create for herself and others is what I've been most impressed with," Parker said.

Agler's expectations for Gray are high. In Seattle he coached one of the game's all-time best point guards in Sue Bird, and he holds a similar standard of excellence for Gray.

"I see the potential," Agler said, adding that Gray could be the eventual guard to replace Bird on the U.S. Olympic team. "I want to push her to be the best that she possibly can be."

That includes improvements on the defensive end, where Agler believes Gray can take even more advantage of her size. In Beard, Gray couldn't have a better defensive role model.

"She's a tenacious defender," Gray said. "She's the best one in the league to me."

Both are former Duke standouts and share a special bond. In fact, Beard reached out to Gray after the younger Blue Devil alum sustained her first injury at Duke. Beard, who sat out the 2010 and 2011 seasons due to ankle tendon and foot injuries, knew all too well what Gray was going through.

Beard recalled a conversation she had with Gray a year ago.

"I told her that in two to three years, she's going to be the best point guard in the league," Beard recalled. "She has a knack for the game; she has a calmness about her. She can do everything."

At a recent Sparks' practice, Beard asked Gray if she remembered that conversation. She did.

"Yeah," Beard said. "Now prove me wrong."