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Chelsea Gray plays point guard for the Los Angeles Sparks. The eleventh pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft out of Duke University, Gray is a 3x WNBA All-Star. In 2016, she helped lead the Sparks to their third WNBA championship in team history. Below, she talks with Just Women’s Sports about her draft day experience, why she think Sabrina Ionescu will be successful at the next level, and the difficulties of rebooting the WNBA season amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The WNBA draft was a little over a week ago. It’s a huge transition for so many players, but a lot of them already made life-changing moves when they went to college. Looking back, what do you remember about your first year at Duke? 

I went to Duke in 2010, the summer after I graduated high school. That was a big adjustment for me to go to what felt like the other side of the world. I’m a Californian, born and raised, so being in North Carolina was a definite change. I wasn’t able to go downstairs to Mom’s home cooking. I had to figure out how to get my car to drive on snow. It took some time to get settled, but I loved being at Duke. It was a great experience and being on the east coast for a while helped me really understand that way of life, which is totally different than California.

Fast-forward a few years. What was the lead up to draft day like?

Leading up to the draft, I was a nervous wreck. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was excited to be there, and I tried to just embrace it, but, unless you’re supposed to go in the top three, you don’t really know when your name is going to be called. I was jittery at the table, and every time the person walked up to the podium with the little draft card in their hand I was like, “Is it me? Oh my God, my name didn’t come up. Okay, breathe, drink some water.” I was too nervous to eat. But that’s all part of the experience, having those jittery feelings, and having the anxiety and nervousness. That all goes into the draft.

Even though there’s no guarantees, did you have some sense of where you might be taken? 

I had no clue when I was getting chosen, or if I was at all! I was just sitting there like “Oh my gosh, is it the time? Nope, not the time. Is this the time? Nope, not the time.” It’s exciting, it’s exhilarating, it’s one heck of an experience. I was on the edge of my seat. I didn’t think I would go top five, but I was hoping for the first round. It started getting to seven, eight, and I was like “Okay, this might be it.” Then I finally heard it, and there was just so much joy. I think I paused for a second. I was like, “This is real. Oh my gosh, this is really happening.”

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Looking at this year’s draft class, how do you think Sabrina Ionescu’s game will translate to the WNBA?

I think she’s a great player. She’s done something very special at the University of Oregon. She’s lifted up every single athlete that she’s played with and made that university a household name. That’s something that you really appreciate.

I look at her game from a point guard’s perspective, and to achieve triple-doubles the way she does? That’s not an easy thing to do. That’s hard. You have to fight for rebounds and go take them from post players. That’s hard. And you have to rely on your teammates to make shots for you to get assists. You can control your points, but sometimes you have an off day. What she was able to do is so difficult, you really have to appreciate the way she plays the game.

When she gets to the WNBA, it’s a different level. There’s a lot more in depth scouting, so I think it’ll be an adjustment, but I think she’s capable of succeeding at the highest level.

What advice would you give her for handling the transition?

I don’t want her to put so much pressure on herself because she’s such a big name already. She’s still going to be a rookie. I hope and I think she’s going to be great, but I just want her to play as freely as she did at Oregon, because all of these fans, and the fame… it puts a lot of weight on people. I hope she doesn’t have that. I hope she’s able to play free, play the game, and get triple-doubles. I hope she achieves at the highest level until she plays the Sparks. Then she can have a bad day [laughs].

How would you describe your own transition from college to the next level?

I had a very difficult experience my rookie year. I was injured, I gained weight, I didn’t play as much as I thought I should. Only three to four hours a day were dedicated to the team, and I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my time. I didn’t have school anymore, I was in Connecticut, there wasn’t a lot to do. So I had to try to figure out what to do with that time, and that was difficult. On the court, players are just stronger, faster, smarter than they were in college. You have to rethink how you’re going to achieve at the highest level and play your best basketball.

Do you have any sense as to when or if the upcoming WNBA season will begin?

No idea, actually. We’re all waiting to see and hear back. I think a lot of things depend on the CDC, what they come up with, and what other sports, like NBA, decide to do as well. Their season has already started and it’s toward the later half of it. So how do we combine that with our season, when a lot of teams have NBA affiliates? What does that look like now? Trying to figure that out has been a little tough. And there’s no clarity on exactly when the season could start.

What are some of the logistics problems you see arising?

Well, we’re going to have to figure out a lot more than the NBA will in terms of travel, because they fly private, so they’re able to keep a tighter circle. Flying commercial, we won’t have the ability to keep different people from coming in and out of the plane, so we’re going to have to figure out how we manage our exposure to the public.