ACC Preview: Gray leads Wake freshmen

Justin Gray<br> (DeaconSports photo)

In the second feature in a series of intriguing ACC stories by <i>Inside Carolina</i>'s Paul Swann, the focus is on Wake Forest freshman Justin Gray.

Three years ago at West Charlotte (NC) High School, Justin Gray was a skilled high school sophomore who was a local hotshot point guard. He was better than most kids his age, but he possessed one particular element to his game that seemed to always catch the eye of onlookers. That skill was his jumpshooting ability.

Justin Gray can shoot.

He can really shoot.

In fact, he is as good a shooter as any entering the ACC this year, and that includes the already touted baby Blue Devil, J.J. Redick.

It is so easy to watch Justin Gray and talk about negatives, the things he doesn't do. He isn't faster than a speeding bullet and he doesn't leap tall buildings in a single bound. The recruiting gurus saw him early on and even dubbed him a mid major prospect. Then something strange happened. He kept ending up on teams that won a bunch of games, and in some cases, all of their games. A quick perusal of his high school resume reveals some interesting accomplishments. The Charlotte Royals won a 16 and under national championship, a Nike Blue Grass Championship, and a Boo Williams Championship. His Oak Hill Academy squad lost one game in two years, picking up a USA Today mythical national championship along the way.

Has Gray been fortunate to play with a lot of great players? Sure. Among his teammates the past three years have been Curtis Withers, Rashad McCants, Dasagana Diop, Sani Ibrahim, Rashaad Carruth, Billy Edelin, Mario Boggans, Chad Moore, Eric Wilkins, and Carmelo Anthony. Obviously, all the success he has been a part of is not solely his doing. You would be hard pressed however, to find any former teammates that would argue his importance to the aforementioned championships and accomplishments.

James Holland, a University of Georgia assistant who came in second in the Justin recruiting sweepstakes, once said of Gray, "Some kids are always trying to find a better shot, a closer shot. The thing I like about Justin is that he is comfortable whenever he gets open." Gray has crazy range, bolstered mostly by his two-year stint in the weight room at Oak Hill. But, range on his "J" overshadows the other attributes in this young man's game. He is a basketball computer.

The first time you see him play you are struck by his ability to shoot the basketball. But, if you see him over a long period of time, other things start to amaze you every bit as much as his peerless outside touch. You begin to figure out that he just steadfastly refuses to make bad plays. The kid is the very personification of cerebral. It is astounding how often he picks up a timely charge or how often he makes the smart decision on a fastbreak. Most players wow uneducated viewers of the game with pure athleticism. While Gray is sneakily athletic, what brings connoisseurs of the game to pure appreciation is the deadly steadiness of his game. With him, you know what you're going to get every night. More importantly, you know what you're not going to get: bad turnovers, stupid shots, or blown defensive assignments.

His offensive game has all the little intricacies that high school coaches try to impart to their charges but that most players inevitably dismiss as mundane or useless. Gray seems to have internalized all the nuances of the game, always staying three steps ahead of his opponent and absolutely destroying them with one basic play after another.

If that was all his game possessed, then he would just be an average player. What makes him one of the most intriguing stories in this new ACC season though, is that he can really, really, really shoot. J.J. Redick is getting the most ink as the best frosh jumpshooter, but watch the three point numbers over the next four years, and then get back to me.

Almost as intriguing is McDonald's All-American Eric Williams. Early in his high school career he also looked like a mid major prospect. At times on his Raleigh Heat summer team you would forget he was on the floor. Of course, some of that had to do with his highly thought of teammate Shavlik Randolph, but some of it was because he simply disappeared rather frequently. If the game was an up and down affair, he might be in the mix, but most often, he wouldn't. He rarely ran the floor, and his lack of athleticism made him the whipping boy of more vertically enhanced opponents.

Somewhere over the course of his senior year, he started to realize that what he had was heft. He then figured out that if he used that heft correctly (along with his sure hands) he could be a terror on the interior offensively, as well as on the defensive boards.

The Demon Deacons have possibly the very best player in the conference in Josh Howard. They have a reliable backcourt ace and good perimeter shooter in Taron Downey, and though young and inexperienced, Wake boasts a bevy of other talented and skilled complementary players. The Wake Forest program is on solid footing. This group of youngsters could surprise, and by midseason Skip Prosser might have them winning more games than their preseason predictions would suggest.

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