Chelsea Gray's return makes No. 2 Duke all that stronger

Oct. 25, 2013 @ 10:30 PM

Playing pick up basketball with teammates in August, Duke’s Chelsea Gray reached a mental hurdle she had to cross.

Having dislocated her kneecap last February, the all-American guard had been through a grueling summer rehabilitation process just to reach this point five months later.

She drove with the ball into the lane. She banged inside for rebounds. She dribbled and stopped for jumpers.

A few times, she absorbed some physical banging in the lane, the risk of re-injury always close.

“Oooohh,” Gray thought before thinking, “I’m OK. I’m fine.”

With that, she was ready to go full speed toward Duke’s women’s basketball season.

“It was kind if scary sometimes,” Gray said Friday. “But I felt good. I was fine after that.”

Healthy and confident once again, Gray is one of five starters returning for the Blue Devils, who went 33-3 and reached the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight despite playing their final 11 games without her.

Duke is ranked as high as No.2, behind reigning national champion Connecticut, in preseason polls. Gray, who averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 3.6 steals last season and was named the ACC’s Co-Player of the Year by the league’s coaches, is a big reason why.

Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie has a situation many coaches would welcome. Once Gray was injured, freshman guard Alexis Jones upped her production and was named ACC Tournament Most Valuable Player. She and Tricia Liston became potent producers in the backcourt as the Blue Devils advanced within a win of the Final Four of the fourth consecutive season.

With Gray healthy again, McCallie will have all three, all worthy of major minutes, to rotate this season.

“We should be much more dominant because of it,” McCallie said. “Having Chelsea off the court was an enormous loss. I thought Lex and Tricia really, really stepped it up and really began to understand each other’s games better. Now playing off each other, being confident in our individual skills and playing as a team, that was what we were robbed of. That was developing at that time (of Gray’s injury).”

Possessing solid play-making skills herself, Jones turned things loose over the season’s final 11 games and helped Duke win the ACC Tournament and make its deep NCAA Tournament run.

She credits Gray with hard work, done smartly, to get back for the start of practice from such a serious injury. As for the offense and defense working effectively with all Duke’s talent, Jones doesn’t see it being difficult at all.

“I see us fitting in really well with Chelsea coming back,” Jones said. “It’s another player on the defensive side and another scoring opportunity. It’s adding another piece to it. We are all excited for Chelsea to be back.”