Duke in the WNBA: Historic Chelsea Gray play leads Aces to final
The WNBA Finals are set and a former Blue Devil is on every team’s roster. The Blue Zone takes a look at how Duke alumni fared through the W this year:
The “Point Gawd” takes over
The past few years have been something of an odyssey for Chelsea Gray. She set career highs in points, assists, rebounds and steals on the second best efficiency of her career in 2018; over the next three seasons, his scoring average dropped each year and his efficiency fell from the 72nd percentile to the 27th, according to Her Hoop Stats. She played better to start 2022 and was up for an All-Star selection, but her game was still far from its peak.
Then came the All-Star break.
During the second half of the 2022 season, Gray finished seventh in total scoring, third in assists and eighth in scoring efficiency, according to WNBA Advanced Stats. She even got a first MVP vote. And to qualify for her third career final, she put another notch in what was quantifiably the most dominating final in professional basketball history.
“I don’t quite know how [I shot so well]”I just go into my shots like I’m practicing them,” Gray said. “It’s no different…Why I signed [with the Las Vegas Aces] is for those times.
Gray scored 60 points in Games 3 and 4 of the semifinals to lead the top-ranked Aces to victory over No. 4 Seattle. Not only did those performances come on the road, in front of an average of 13,000 fans of Storm, but they ended Sue Bird’s career and possibly former MVP Breanna Stewart’s move to Seattle. With that second wind just before his 30th birthday, Gray did his best to seize the role of the W’s first playmaker.
“When Chelsea are moving and rolling, my biggest thing is just getting out of their way,” said 2022 MVP A’ja Wilson. “Honestly, I’ve never seen anyone do that live, dictate the game and stay calm in every moment. She’s built for this moment.
JT with a bad knee
Despite their failure to hit the jackpot, this era of Connecticut Sun basketball featured a number of lovable characters. Among them is point guard Jasmine Thomas.
Thomas was the Sun’s ground general, seeded No. 1 in 2021, but suffered a torn ACL less than a month into this season. A 36.6 percent three-point shooter since 2017 who was an All-Defense selection in five of his last six seasons, his loss was significant for Connecticut; the Sun missed his game, shooting beyond the arc and defense to the point of attack.
Connecticut lost the 2019 Finals in a knockout game against a historically dominant Washington Mystics offense, and after following that with back-to-back semifinal losses, wondered if they were built to win a title. . After possibly ending Candace Parker’s career in a playoff game last Thursday, the Sun has a chance to prove the naysayers wrong in a finals showdown with Las Vegas. Leading them vocally from the sidelines will be former Duke Thomas.
Lexie Brown finds a role
When the Los Angeles Sparks signed Lexie Brown in the offseason, the off-ball guard was joining his fourth team in his first five WNBA seasons. Despite playing productive play in Minnesota, she was cut due to positional need, before becoming a shoehorn in a backup point guard role on 2021 champion Chicago Sky.
Brown pretty much ditched the “companion” label this year. The most improved contestant, she shot nearly 40% from three with a 91st percentile assist-to-turnover ratio, according to Her Hoop Stats, in addition to her usual solid defense at the point of attack. Whether she starts or comes off the bench has fluctuated as a former Los Angeles roster has suffered various injuries throughout the season. But it’s safe to say that a Sparks team that could be cleaning up this winter has found a solid piece of the 2023 puzzle.
Elizabeth Williams continues to play solid
For the first time since her rookie season, Duke’s first four-time All-American was a bench player. Also for the first time since her rookie season with Connecticut, she played outside of Atlanta.
Elizabeth Williams signed as a free agent with Washington on a one-year deal ahead of this season, seen as a solid defensive center in a high-powered offensive lineup that could hide her shortcomings on this side of the court — à la LaToya Sanders on this. 2019 champion team. But Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault was hugely impressed with rookie center Shakira Austin, whom he drafted with the No. 3 pick in the freshman draft in April; she started, excelled, and even garnered All-Defense votes in the ballots.
In her role as a substitute, Williams was clearly overqualified playing against other bench players. As she hits the free agent market again this winter, it’s safe to say teams will still want her excellent defensive play and rebounds.
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