Oklahoma point guard Sam Grooms made his way through the traditional postgame handshake line following his team’s 86-71 win against Texas Tech on Wednesday, offering a slight pat on the shoulder and a nod to the Red Raiders who sauntered in his direction.
But when he reached the final player in line, his freshman counterpart Josh Gray, Grooms had a bigger embrace in mind. A wide smile spread across his face as he hugged Gray, clutched the back of his head and delivered words of praise and encouragement.
“He leads his team,” Grooms said. “He makes them tick, makes them go. When we hugged I told him to keep his head up. Just because it doesn’t look great right now doesn’t mean it won’t look great in the future. I told him to keep playing as hard as he can. People see that. Perception is reality for him right now.”
It was a sign of respect, from a senior to a freshman, an acknowledgement that the reality is the Red Raiders could very well have a special player in Gray, who poured in a 26 points Wednesday, the most ever scored by a Tech freshman in a Big 12 Conference game.
“He played unbelievably for a freshman,” Tech coach Chris Walker said. “You can’t argue with that line.”
He created scoring with his defense, turning four steals into easy layups. He got to the basket, finished in traffic and found teammates for five assists. Gray turned the ball over just once, perhaps the most important stat of the game for a player who has been thrown into the pool headfirst, handed the keys to a Big 12 program one year removed from navigating through the calmer waters of high-school competition.
It hasn’t always been easy for Gray, this point-guard evolution. While Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart has made the position look easy in his first year guiding that team, the reality is few roles require more of a player in sports. A point guard not only has to know his own role in a given situation, but everyone else’s, too. Anticipation and instincts are basic requirements, and while those qualities are inherent to a degree, they can only be mastered through fire.
“You’re putting a freshman in a situation where he’s making every decision,” Walker said. “They’re (Oklahoma) not doing that on the other team. They’re not putting it and a freshman’s hands. They’re putting it in (Romero) Osby’s hands. They’re putting it in (Steven) Pledger’s hands. They have seniors with the ball. We have a freshman with the ball.”
Molding Gray into the most efficient player he can be is a balancing act for Tech. On one hand, as the only player on the team capable of breaking a defender down off the dribble and getting to the basket, Tech needs his scoring ability. On the other, understanding the attention he draws should open the door for others. Gray’s ability to use the athleticism to create for others is also paramount to his maturation as a player.
“For us to win, I would rather Josh Gray score 15 points, have 12 assists,” said Walker, who stressed he wasn’t criticizing Gray’s performance against the Sooners. “That’s the formula for Texas Tech to win.”
Gray has certainly showed signs of late that he is capable of striking that delicate balance. Through his first 18 games, the freshman recorded 47 assists while turning the ball over 58 times. In the past six games, he has 31 assists to 20 turnovers, working his way back for a 1-to-1 ratio on the season.
“Every game I learn, every practice I learn,” Gray said. “Pretty much every practice all the coaching staff has been on me really hard, teaching me how to play that position, play that role and do a good job at it. I feel like I came a long way, and I’m still learning.”
As Gray continues to grow into a more well-rounded player, other Tech players will benefit, Walker said. Wednesday provided a prime example, as all five of his assists led to 3-pointers, either in drive-and-kick situations, or throwing the ball back up top to Jaye Crockett or Clark Lammert after bursting off a ball screen. Action like that has helped Tech score more than 60 points in three straight conference games for the first time in two years.
None of those figures, Gray said, erase the sting of a seven-game losing streak that won’t be easy to snap with an upcoming road trip at Iowa State (Saturday) and Kansas State (Monday). But he is also taking Grooms’ words to heart.
“Nobody likes losing,” Gray said, “and we’re losing, evidently. It’s hard on all the players, but we have to keep working and fighting as a team, because we’re a family. That’s what family does, they keep working toward it, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
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