Midway through the season, if you had to select a Hornets player you believed would make an impact on a potential New Orleans playoff appearance, Aaron Gray mightve been the last guy picked. His role was virtually nonexistent, buried on the depth chart behind fellow backup big men including D.J. Mbenga and David Andersen. That helps explain why first-year coach Monty Williams sounded a lot like a proud parent when he described the transformation Gray made during 2010-11.
Hes learning how to be a really, really good pro, Williams said. He works hard every day. He couldve complained early on (about not playing) and did not. He waited his turn, and made the most of it. As a result, Gray ended up logging critical minutes during the stretch run of the regular season, as well as in the playoffs against the Lakers. The soft-spoken 7-footer ultimately compiled the most rewarding season of his four-year career, filling a key role for a playoff team for the first time.
Here are a few additional relevant quotes on Gray, who was traded to New Orleans from Chicago midway through the 2009-10 season:
On his impact late in the season:
When D.West went down, people had to step up. Carls done a great job, Emekas done a great job. Im just trying to be as big a contributor off the bench as I can be. Coach (Williams) has just been talking to me, trying to make me as comfortable as possible. I have a great leader and point guard in Chris Paul. Emeka and David West help me out every game. You have to be humble, put your ego aside. Thats what I tried to do since the beginning of the year, when I wasnt playing.
On his role:
My job as a backup center, especially if guys get in foul trouble, is I cant let there be a drop-off. I have to do the best I can to continue to prove myself. The coaching staff and my teammates have done a great job of putting me in a position to succeed. We have so many guys who draw so much attention, as far as Chris and D.West and Carl, who draws attention on the blocks. If I can continue to be strong in the paint and play well, I think the confidence is growing from my teammates and the coaching staff. On any given night, coach has five solid options down low.
On attention to detail and focus:
There are plays that you can really stand out, or put an idea in a coachs mind that Aarons not focused in and ready to play. Those are the kinds of minutes and situations that you have to avoid.
On teammates view of Gray:
I think guys are finding they can be confident (in Gray). Hes got toughness. If you look at his career and go back to college, hes played in tough situations. If youre a big coming out of the Big East, you know how to play a physical style of basketball that we like to play around here. His biggest thing is to not get those cheap fouls.