When we talk about the strengths and weaknesses of this year's Gonzaga team, there is no doubt that the experience lies in the backcourt. Specifically, two players in that backcourt will be looked upon to be leaders of this very young team. Matt Bouldin is obviously the face of this team but there is one more player that must step up this season for the Zags this season and that is Steven Gray. Gray, a junior shooting guard came to Spokane from the Seattle area with plenty of hype as he was part of that vaunted 2007 recruiting class. Now, as he is about to begin his third year at Gonzaga, Steven's role will certainly be increased a great deal. The question I think that most Gonzaga fans have now is how will he react to the pressure that will come with this season. While it is impossible to question the talent that Gray has, last year was a difficult one for him. He struggled throughout the season to find a consistent rhythm and battled a nagging hand injury that really affected his abilities as the sharpshooter that we all saw his freshman year.
While injuries are never a good thing, especially ones that have such a direct effect on a player's strength, Steven's hand injury seemed to force him to attack the rim more and use his size and speed to create his own shot. A great example of this and one that we often point to was the game against Connecticut in the Battle in Seattle. His best game in a Gonzaga uniform, Gray was the one consistent force all day long and put the team on his back as Austin Daye and Josh Heytvelt were in foul trouble and guards Matt Bouldin and Micah Downs were largely ineffective. Steven attempted 16 field goals that day and connected on ten of them. He finished with 23 points and only one of those made buckets was from three-point range. He had no trouble getting to the rim and used great body control to make shots. After that game, Steven seemed to have turned a corner and started playing good basketball but the hot streak didn't last and his contributions as well as his time on the court really started to deteriorate. As we look towards this season and what this team needs Steven to be, I hope that he is able to watch that film of the UConn game and realize that if he can do that against Connecticut which at the time had Hasheem Thabeet, Jeff Adrien and many other skilled big men, he can do it against anyone.
Looking back on last season's production for Steven Gray, it is pretty safe to say that he came into the season with huge expectations after a very stellar freshman campaign. Although he didn't play the first ten games of that season, he immediately became an integral part of the offense upon his return. He filled his role well and finished his first year at Gonzaga with a three-point shooting percentage of 46%. His performance in Gonzaga's first round match up against Davidson made Zag fans salivate at the thought of his potential. He connected on seven threes and finished with 21 points and looked to be the only Bulldog guard interested in playing that day.
Steven played in every game his sophomore season but he only averaged .4 minutes more per game than his freshman year. He was constantly battling Micah Downs for time on the court and the two typically wound up splitting the time pretty equally. This seemed to greatly affect Gray's consistency throughout the season. For example, after the Connecticut game, he went on a nice little run where he scored in double figures six of the next nine games but after that, quality offensive games were few and far between. In fact, he was only able to get in to double figures four of the next 15 games. The cause of this poor production is difficult to decipher because it wasn't like he was out there casting up three-point shots. There were some games where he would shoot five or six a game and connect only on one but, overall, most of the time he only attempted two or three and would soon disappear from the flow of the game. We've talked about his slump but it is worth noting that all of his percentages went down pretty drastically from his freshman to sophomore year. His three-point and free-throw percentage both dropped more than ten percent from '07 to '08.
One of the main things that has always been a point of contention when people discuss Steven is his attitude on the court. Gonzaga has always been a school that has produced emotional players. Whether it was because they played with that mid-major chip on their shoulder or they were just a little off mentally, people that leave the Gonzaga basketball program tend to have no issue letting emotions fly. This is a big reason why the program has been so effective in the past. When you have emotional players, they have no reservations about making impulse plays and taking over when the need arises. When we look at Steven Gray's overall demeanor on the court, it is obvious that he is very reserved. He has a very laid back persona that I think is fine when you are a freshman or sophomore on a team full of veterans. But now that he is a junior on a team where he is now one of the elder statesmen, that mentality is no longer acceptable.
I honestly believe that Steven's production will be a direct link to the type of attitude he brings on the floor. If we see his three-point attempts increase from last year's total of 142, I think he'll be in for another difficult year. The key for him, like I said in the opening, is to avoid becoming one-dimensional and merely relying on the three-point basket. For this to happen, I think there has to be an understanding among the coaches about the kind of player Steven is. When he was recruited during high school, his best assets were his ability to move without the ball and come off screens and nail the mid-range or deep jumper. Often times last season he became a spot up shooter and he never seemed to get into the rhythm of coming off a screen like we saw in his freshman season. His mid-range game will be great to this team when you consider that guys like Matt Bouldin, Manny Arop, Grant Gibbs, Meech, and GJ all feel more comfortable getting to the rim. Steven also has the ability to get to the rim and I feel like that will best be utilized when he is moving without the ball and creating mismatch opportunities due to his size. Another avenue which he can take when creating his own shot is by using the pump fake. When coaches (especially in the early season) game plan for Gonzaga, they will have to account for Gray's ability to knock down the jumper and I think that opposing teams will be so dedicated to getting a hand in his face that he will be able to throw in a pump fake and get himself into the lane.
Besides Matt Bouldin, I don't think their are any greater expectations on an individual player's shoulders than there are on Steven Gray. If you asked most die-hard fans of the program, they would not see it as unreasonable to expect him to be in the running for leading scorer on this team. His shooting stroke, size, and deceptive quickness should make him one of the toughest match ups in the conference and hopefully by the end of the year, he will be one of the toughest in the nation.