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Aaron Gray : : Size Matters

Aaron Gray For a long time the Bulls have searched for a capable player with both size and strength to control the low block, and in second round pick Aaron Gray, Chicago seems to have some help in that area.

Size Matters

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    Posted October 11, 2007 | By Brett Ballantini

    WANTED: Seven-footer who can hold his own on both ends of the floor. Must have brawn and be willing to get nasty at times; wimps need not apply. Must have All-Conference credentials (MAJOR CONFERENCES ONLY) with significant NCAA Tournament experience.

    References from respected college coaches and opponents strongly recommended. Defined role, playing time, and other assigned tasks at management’s discretion. Salary and contract length TBD.

    No, this wasn’t a Variety ad placed by Spike Lee for his next sports biopic, nor was it posted in the jobs section of NBA.com by a crafty GM with Internet savvy. However, it could well have been scrawled onto a shingle hanging outside of Bulls GM John Paxson’s office. Ever since the Eddy Curry trade two years ago, “low-post scorer needed” has seemingly been a permanent attachment to any pundit’s assessment of the Bulls.

    The Bulls got a little brasher, tougher, and bigger over the summer with the lottery selection of Joakim Noah, and the re-signing of Andrés Nocioni and the inking of veteran free-agent Joe Smith. But Noah’s rather awkward shooting ability doesn’t exactly fill the call for for needed offense down in the paint. However, the retention of Nocioni and the addition of Smith will ease the demands that will soon be made upon Noah and second-year player Tyrus Thomas. But in the long term, the position of young, talented low-post scoring threat has yet to be filled.

    Unless, of course … all right, here goes—there’s this young guy—Aaron Gray—a second-round pick out of Pitt, now on the Bulls. Some thought he was a sure first-rounder, maybe even on the cusp of being a lottery pick. After all, the guy was All-Big East and has lots of NCAA Tourney experience. He’s a legit seven-footer who’s more aircraft carrier than PT boat. The kid’s got some credentials.

    Of course, he doesn’t have a cool handle like Double-A or G-Ray. His footwork may not be worthy of Arthur Murray, but maybe, just maybe…

    For those of you who try to avoid ESPN and somehow manage not to pay much attention to games out east, let’s set the record straight: The University of Pittsburgh is not your traditional college basketball powerhouse. What’s more, the team plays in probably the toughest conference in the land, the Big East, so its whole arrangement is more akin to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays having to face the New York Yankees, and the Boston Red Sox 19 times a season than any devoted Pitt fan would like to admit.

    That is, until frontcourt menaces Aaron Gray and Chris Taft arrived on campus and the Pitt Panthers started to win like crazy under Head Coach Jamie Dixon. In Gray’s four years at Pitt, the Panthers went a ridiculous 105-30 and made four trips to the NCAA Tournament, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2007. The bruising seven-foot center did more than his fair share to guarantee Pitt’s placement as one of the more prominent up-and-coming teams in the country, becoming the 34th player in school history to score over 1,000 points and the 17th to notch more than 700 rebounds. The dual milestones are telling for Gray, a virtual double-double machine who averaged 13.9 points and 9.5 rebounds as a senior.

    Aaron Gray As a senior, Gray led Pitt in scoring (13.9), rebounds (9.5) field goal percentage (.565), and blocked shots (62).
    (Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
    Those digits chased a breakout junior campaign, where he became only the third player in school history to snag All-Big East First Team and Most Improved Player honors after posting averages of 13.9 points and 10.5 rebounds, 18 double-doubles and established the conference record for most rebounds (47) in a single Big East tournament.

    And, in case you think this 270-pounder from Emmaus, Pennsylvania, is tightly anchored to the ground, think again; Gray’s shot-blocking expertise proved lethal, “ploinking” away 130 shots over a 113 game college career, averaging better than one swat per game.

    “For me, my development was really a matter of getting a chance to play,” Gray says. “My coaches and teammates knew what I could do. When Chris Taft left for the NBA after my sophomore year, I was ready to shoulder the burden and step into his role, and things worked out well for me.”

    Gray also benefited from having a patient coach in Dixon, who had enough confidence in him not to feel an obligation to replace Taft immediately. Instead, Dixon was willing to see what the likeable Gray could do with an uptick in minutes. Aaron didn’t disappoint.

    “Aaron is unlike a lot of other players in the Draft, even guys who’ve already made it into the NBA, in that he has a track record of four years, all of solid improvement,” Dixon says. “His work ethic and level of self-confidence, I didn’t teach that to him. [The Bulls] won’t teach it to him. He just has it, and it’s going to serve him well. I think he’s going to play in the NBA for a very long time.”

    Of course, the highly-competitive world of professional basketball is not nearly so kind to apprentice players, and, without a strong summer league and training camp effort, Gray could easily find himself looking for other work in late October. But to paraphrase the immortal William “the Refrigerator” Perry, Gray may be large, but he’s no dumb cookie, ladling onto his 2007 Third Team All-American accolades the honor of being the Big East’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year. He knows the odds are stacked against a second-round pick, no matter what his projections or pedigrees.

    “I feel like I can contribute to this team, but at the same time, I know nothing is promised to me,” Gray says. “It’s going take a lot of hard work to prove I belong. I’m looking forward to giving everything I can to the Bulls. If I’m not able to make things work, it won’t be for lack of effort.”

    Sure sounds like a prototypical Scott Skiles-John Paxson player—you bet! It’s no surprise that Gray will be donning the red and black while turning opponents black and blue.

    “Aaron’s makeup is perfect for our team,” Paxson says. “It’s no secret that we’ve been looking to get bigger and stronger on the front line. Aaron is a player who can do the things we need a big man to do. He’ll hit his shots inside, he’s no-nonsense under the basket and he’s not a guy who’s afraid of contact.”

    Gray acknowledges he’s fortunate to be in Chicago, given that he hadn’t been scheduled to work out for the Bulls prior to the NBA Draft. Then, a mere three days before Commissioner David Stern took his first step towards the Draft dais, the Bulls called and gave Gray a strong indication that he wouldn’t slip past them in the second round.

    “Once I got here [before the Draft] I couldn’t help but be impressed by everything, the coaching staff, the practice facility,” Gray says. “It was easy to see just how great an organization the Bulls are, and it was exciting to know my name was on their list to be a Bull.”

    Aaron Gray Gray’s impressive size and strength allows him to back most defenders under the basket, which in turn should force opponents to focus more of an effort to defend inside.
    Gray’s private workout didn’t particularly sell the Bulls brass that he was the man for them, but, given the circumstances, it definitely didn’t hurt.

    “We prize mental toughness as highly as we do physical skills, and something that came through with Aaron was his mental toughness and dexterity,” Paxson says. “For a team that expects its big men to do a lot more than just plant on the block and call for the ball, his strengths as a player and as a person are things we prize.”

    “I was used to going against several players, but in Chicago it was one-on-one,” Gray says. “The workout was a killer. I was trying to squeeze all I could out of myself, but this was my 13th workout for teams in a relatively short period of time. Obviously, I must have showed them enough, but for a second there I started to wonder if I’d finish on my feet.”

    Believe it or not, it was Gray’s mental toughness in that 11th-hour workout that sold the Bulls.

    “Of course you’re always looking at physical skills,” Paxson says. “But we’ve seen what all these players have done in school and what they can do on the floor. Some of what comes from individual workouts is how a player handles the stress of the unknown, a new set of instructions on the fly.”

    That Gray is a terrific student of the game didn’t hurt his prospects with the Bulls, either.

    “I’m a physical player, sure—show me a seven-footer who isn’t or shouldn’t be,” Gray says. “But I pride myself on also being a smart, astute player. Rebounding is a strength of mine, but not because I’m able to shove guys out of the way. It’s not always about jumping the highest or even being the strongest out there; it’s really being in the proper position and having good timing. I try to bring a combination of smarts and strength to the floor.”

    So Gray, a prototypical Bulls player, who brings brains and brawn to the table, was the No. 49 pick in the Draft. In the space of a couple of months, he fell from a prospective mid-first-round pick to a guy rescued 11 slots from the bottom of the Draft. What in the name of Joel Przybilla is going on here? Well, as Paxson laughs, “Let’s face it; Aaron is not the most athletic guy in the world.”

    When you’re discussing a player the size of Aaron Gray and cite a locomotive, it’s not because he can outrun one, but that he moves as if fueled by shoveled coal. But the all-encompassing, “not overly athletic” dig derails really quickly. Run a squad of Hall-of-Famer super-athletes against those who would have been considered “not overly athletic,” and any GM worth his hi-top Chuck Taylors would bet his lottery balls on the latter group.

    “Let me tell you, Aaron Gray is a big, big guy,” says New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn. “He’s got a wide body. He’s strong. He’s in shape. He’s got soft hands at the rim and can go left or right. If the biggest knock on him is his athletic ability, I’d still take a chance on a guy like that. Give me first-round skills and second-round athleticism any day of the week.”

    The pre-Draft grind was grueling for Gray, who managed to shed 20 pounds from his “non-athletic” body during west coast training sessions with famed fitness coach Joe Abunassar. “Foot speed drills, agility work, quickness drills, five-on-fives, you name it, I was doing it,” Gray says of his boot camp days.

    Gray has also heard his share of criticism for deciding to stick around campus for one last go around, some believing the smart move for him would’ve been to jump to the NBA after his breakout junior season at Pitt. Back then, the college basketball world could do little more than nip his ankles and the Draft talent had kiddie pool depth. However, an injury-filled senior season, corresponding weight gain, and an anticipated future filled with regrets was enough to fling Gray out of the Draft lottery, Wile E. Coyote style, and deep into round two.

    Aaron Gray Draft experts are virtually unanimous in their praise Chicago’s rookie crop of Joakim Noah, Gray, and JamesOn Curry (above with White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle).
    (Ron Vesely/Chicago White Sox)
    “I’ve really got no regrets,” Gray says matter-of-factly. “How can you not feel good about returning to the school and community that gave you an opportunity, and finishing up a career in the Sweet 16? I’d drive myself crazy if I started thinking any other way.”

    Gray’s focus is now on adapting to the Bulls system and getting a feel for his new teammates, as well as continuing his rigorous physical training. On the floor, Gray quickly flashed some first-round skills for the Bulls, putting up 10 points and 10 rebounds in his second pro game, a July 10 summer league victory over the Charlotte Bobcats.

    It also bears mentioning before space runs out on this introductory tale that he is, first and foremost, a true team player. Yes, the very idea of using “team player” as a compliment pins the cliché meter, at least until you consider the other current members of the Bulls who might also be saddled with said cliché: Paxson … Skiles … Luol Deng … Ben Gordon … Kirk Hinrich … Andres Nocioni … Ben Wallace …

    C’mon, you get it by now. In almost every way, Aaron Gray is the perfect fit for the Windy City Toros.

    “Maybe it sounds funny, but I’ve never worried about my numbers or having a bad game,” Gray says. “I worry about letting my team down. I don’t ever want to let my teammates down or prevent us from winning.”

    For a fella who’s going to be asked to set bone-jarring picks and sink put-backs first, earn big bucks and expect accolades later, Gray’s fears are music to Chicago’s ears. And somewhere in the midst of the Bulls training Gray to be a capable NBA center, the answer to the team’s biggest need may have hit town.