Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jon Gray: From Manager to Marksman

From Manager to Marksman

By Sam Aleinikoff
February 23, 2011

He played all of five minutes against Division I opponents last season, recording two rebounds and a pair of turnovers as his only official statistics. Forget away games, on the rare occasion that he actually traveled with the team it was purely in a practice squad capacity. Scrub minutes might even be a stretch; Johnny Gray didn’t step on the floor last season with the Red holding anything less than a 20-point lead.

On Saturday night though, the 6-foot-3 former-manager posted a double-double, becoming just the fourth Red guard to record at least 10 rebounds in a game over the last decade. Gray’s no one hit wonder though, while the Red have split each of the last three Ivy weekends – a vast improvement from it’s 0-4 start to league play – the walk-on has averaged close to 9 points per game.

In the process he’s become a valuable member of last season’s recruiting class, one that the former staff dubbed “the best class we’ve ever brought in.”

Miles Asafo-Adjei was supposed to be the lock-down defender. Peter McMillan was touted as the dead-eye long range shooter. Josh Figini and Eitan Chemerinski were thought of as potential interior threats with a little work in the weight room. Peck was the prized prospect, the guy who had a scholarship offer from would-be national runner-up Butler, but turned it down to come to East Hill.

Gray, well to be honest, even those in daily contact with the program didn’t know his name until it popped onto the roster at the midway point last year. Until then, he was merely the manager who, for some reason, seemed to be working out with the team.

To date this year though, he’s managed to catapult himself into the role of a key contributor. Gray has established himself as a versatile defender, spending time on everyone from 6-foot-1 Brandyn Curry of Harvard to Kareem Maddox, Princeton’s 6-foot-8 power forward. Peck sees Gray as a viable option at any position, one through three, on both sides of the ball.

Although his 35% shooting from beyond the arc hasn’t earned Gray the title of a lethal shooter quite yet, he’s knocked down multiple threes in five games this year. He’s shown a knack for hitting seemingly impossible shots (see the buzzer-beating, fade-away, banked-in, three from the corner in the second half against Princeton).

“After every practice we take half court shots and I don’t think I beat him once this year,” Peck said last weekend. “He hits some crazy shots and that’s, I guess, what he does.”

On the inside, his rebounding has provided a solid boost to a squad that is depleted in the middle. His 51 boards on the year are more than Figini and Chemerinski’s combined total (45).

“Sneakily, he might be the most athletic one on the team,” backcourt mate Chris Wroblewski said, explaining Gray’s ability on the glass. “Pound-for-pound, with his height, he’s what six-three, six-four, he can sky…He can judge a shot correctly, whether its gonna go long or short and kinda position himself well.”

Peck had a different explanation.

“He works really hard. Rebounding is a lot about effort and he crashes the glass every single time, so it’s bound to get to him a couple times,” the sophomore said.

In full disclosure, Gray’s entire class has grown immensely throughout their collective second year in Ithaca. Asafo-Adjei and Figini have grabbed starting roles, McMillan’s minutes have tripled and Chemerinski has cemented a spot in the rotation as a back-to-the-basket offensive threat. Peck turned potential into production and is averaging better than 12 points and four rebounds per game in the Ivy League this season.

To most it would seem that Gray’s jump over the last 12 months has been more dramatic though. Manager to marksman. Walk-on to workhorse. Afterthought to attacker.

The coaching staff isn’t surprised by Gray’s progression though.

“We saw Johnny as a good player,” Red head coach Bill Courtney said. “It’s funny because Jay Larranaga – who used to be our assistant – started saying Johnny was his favorite player in the offseason. And you know, we saw him as a guy who could contribute this year and we saw it right from game one.”

Peck isn’t taken aback by his teammate’s play either.

“He’s a good player and he’s always been a good player, so I have high expectations for him,” Peck said. “Especially since he’s been on the team, I knew he was going to be able to play eventually, but it was just when he was gonna get his chance, and he’s got his chance now.”

For Courtney though, the jury is still out on what he’ll do with the opportunity. No doubt, he’s capitalized on increased minutes as of late, scoring at least nine points in six of his last eight games. But, the rookie head coach thinks Gray is still far from hitting a ceiling.

“He has a chance to be a very good player in this league and it’s going to be up to him if he wants to do that,” Courtney said last weekend. “He’ll have to be more consistent in every part of his game. He’ll have to work at his understanding of the game, I think that’s a big part of it.”

High praise and expectations are part of the package despite Gray’s unrecruited former-manager status, a title that Peck is still surprised by.

“It’s crazy that he wasn’t even recruited or anything,” he said with a grin.

It’s particularly crazy given that Peck saw the talent very clearly a year ago.

“I remember working out with Johnny last year and we used to play one-on-one,” the sophomore said. “And I’m trying to keep this on the hush-hush, but he used to kill me.”

Sorry Errick, the secret’s out. So is the one about your teammate’s game.


Anonymous said...

Peck had an offer from Butler for a short time, but it wasn't standing when he made his, ultimate, decision.

The Cornell Basketball Blog said...

Right, because he passed on Butler and was not interested in them. His stock went up his senior year of high school, not down.

Anonymous said...

as a former manager, Grey is acting out my fantasy.

Anonymous said...

Nice story on Jon Gray.

Coach Courtney's comment that Jon still has much to improve upon also makes a larger point about “rebuilding”.

"Rebuilding" does not occur just by recruiting new players. Freshmen are rarely ready to step right in at any level of college basketball.

Rebuilding primarily occurs when every player on the current roster becomes a better player by the start of the next year's season. That means shooting better, defending better, getting stronger, understanding the game better, and on and on.... Foote, Wittman, Dale, Reeves, Tyler and Jacques all got better and better every year. That's how they "rebuilt" the program.

Coach Donahue touted the sophomore and freshmen players on the current roster as two of his best recruiting classes ever at Cornell, including last year's seniors. Coach Donahue did not make these kinds of statements gratuitously, and he knew Ivy League caliber talent based on his 20 years experience in the Ivy League.

If the program is going to be “rebuilt”, it will be rebuilt because every player on the current roster, and every new player recruited, gets better every year they play at Cornell. My guess is that the staff will make sure that happens.

Anonymous said...

One former manager as a player and another is a coach at Harvard.

Any other manager success stories?

Anonymous said...

From Towels to Treys.

The Cornell Basketball Blog said...

Absolutely, the most obvious: Kevin App '07. He was a walk-on, never part of the recruiting class. Joined the team after the season started, just like Gray.