Josh Gray doesn’t suffer from a confidence problem.
“I’m going to be the leader,” he said. “I’m going to be the vocal leader, the coach on the court. I’m going to put everybody where they’re supposed to be, and I’m going to be the dude that everybody knows is a leader.”
Now would be a good time to mention Gray, the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Texas Tech point guard, is a 19-year-old true freshman. He’s been on campus a few months, has been through just a few weeks of official practice and will play his very first college game at 8 p.m. tonight.
Maybe that makes Gray’s bravado premature. Maybe he’s getting ahead of himself. Maybe he has dues to pay before he becomes “the dude” at a major-college program.
Then again, maybe Gray’s swagger — rookie or not — is exactly what the Red Raiders need.
“I like the fact that he has heart,” teammate Jamal Williams said. “He’s one of the toughest guys we’ve got, and I respect him for that.”
Pointing the way
Pick a top college basketball program and you’re likely to find a talented point guard leading it. For all that has changed in the game over the years — the advent of the 35-second shot clock and the 3-point line only scratch the surface — the proverbial floor generals are still the ones who keep the machine turning.
The best ones want the ball, want to be in charge, want to shoulder the load.
Without a capable point guard, offenses sputter. The Red Raiders last season were a prime example. Tech used several players at the position with little success. None brought the ability to create shots for themselves or others with consistency.
The result was an offense that suffered through crippling scoreless stretches and averaged only 59 points per game, good for dead last in the Big 12 Conference.
So when Gray was recruited by former Tech coach Billy Gillispie during the last year, he was offered the opportunity to change all that, a chance to take the reins.
“That’s what Coach G signed me for,” Gray said of being a signature point guard, “to come do that.”
A native of Lake Charles, La., Gray spent the end of his high school career at Houston Wheatley. He averaged 24 points and six assists as a senior last season. His strength as a scorer comes from his quickness — Gray has been pegged by his Tech teammates as the fastest player on the team — deft ball-handling and a pure shooting touch, attributes that allow him to put defenders on their heels.
“He’s a game changer,” said interim coach Chris Walker.
Gray’s high school production came with plenty of attention from college suitors. After narrowing down his choices, Gray signed a national letter of intent with Mississippi State.
It didn’t last. Gray asked for and received a scholarship release shortly after former coach Rick Stansbury retired on March 15.
He didn’t know at the time he’d soon face a similar situation.
‘I’ve made it’
Gray left Mississippi State when he discovered he wouldn’t be able to play for the coach who recruited him. A few months later, he experienced the same blow. Gillispie resigned due to health reasons in September, only a few months after Gray arrived on campus, amid allegations he mistreated players and violated NCAA rules regarding practice times.
Gray voiced his support for Gillispie on Twitter as allegations swirled. But when the waters calmed and Walker, who was also a major fixture in Gray’s recruitment, was placed in charge, the point guard said he had no intention of retreating.
“Throughout everything I’ve been through in my life,” Gray said, “I’ve been having adversity like that, so I know how to take it. I know how to overcome that and not worry about it. Life is life. When things are thrown at you, you’ve got to overcome it. That’s what I’m going to do from now on. If we have a different coach next year, I’m still going to play for him and still come out and do everything I’m supposed to do.”
Gray looks like a man on a mission when he’s on the court. His scowl, his tone are serious. That laser-like focus was born, he said, of the hardships he’s faced.
Gray’s mother died when he was 16. In an interview with the website “High School Hopefuls” earlier this year, Gray said his mother fell into a coma before doctors could pinpoint exactly what was wrong with her health.
After her death, Gray finished high school in Houston, determined to diminish distractions and make the most out of a basketball career. After switching schools — and states — and playing only one season of AAU basketball, Gray’s rankings coming out of Wheatley didn’t place him among the top prospects in the 2012 class. He was graded as a three-star recruit by most of the major recruiting services and was ranked as the 107th best player in the country by Rivals.com.
With all he’s been through, sitting at the bottom of a ranking sheet isn’t Gray’s idea of adversity. An active Twitter user, he begins most mornings using the social media platform to thank God for another day, another chance to show what he can do.
“Throughout all the things I’ve been through,” Gray said, “with me signing with Mississippi State and worrying about everything, now that I’m up here on campus, I feel like I’ve made it.”
‘I just want to win’
The question now is what Gray can make of himself and the Red Raiders. He carries himself as if he’s one of the country’s best point guards, anxious to be the focal point and leader of the team. Privately, coaches close to Gray say he could be in the upper echelon of players in the country. But there’s plenty of work still to be done.
Walker said Gray has had to develop an understanding of the importance of defense, noting he was pleased with the point guard’s effort in that area during Tech’s exhibition game on Nov. 1.
“In high school,” Walker said, “(defense) was non-existent in his life. I don’t think he even knew that side of the floor existed.”
On offense, Gray fits into Walker’s designs of a team that wants to push the ball and dictate the pace, but the coach said the young point guard also has to trust his teammates, not burden himself with having to make something happen on every possession.
“There’s some things he’s got to learn,” Walker said, “from being a high school kid playing with the ball to playing with others and making others better, knowing that will make you a more dangerous player.
“Once his mental state, what’s between his ears, catches up with his body, I think he has a chance to be a phenomenal player in this league.”
Gray said he just wants one thing out of that process.
“I just want to win,” he said. “That’s all I want to do.”
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