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Duke in the WNBA: Historic play from Chelsea Gray leads Aces to Finals

Chelsea Gray logged 60 points in her last two games with the Las Vegas Aces.
Chelsea Gray logged 60 points in her last two games with the Las Vegas Aces.

The WNBA finals are set, and a former Blue Devil is on each team’s roster. The Blue Zone takes a look at how Duke alumni have fared across the W this year:

The “Point Gawd” takes over

The past few years have been a bit of an odyssey for Chelsea Gray. She set then-career-highs in points, assists, rebounds and steals on the second-best efficiency of her career in 2018; in the three seasons after, her scoring average dropped every year, and her efficiency fell from the 72nd percentile to the 27th, per Her Hoop Stats. She played better to start off 2022, and was in contention for an All-Star selection, but her game was still a far cry from her peak.

Then came the All-Star break.

Across the second half of the 2022 season, Gray finished seventh in total scoring, third in assists, and eighth in scoring efficiency, per WNBA Advanced Stats. She even earned a first-place MVP vote. And to advance to her third-career Finals, she put another notch in what has quantifiably been the most dominant Finals run in professional basketball history.

“I don't really know how [I shot so well]—I'm just going into my shots like I practice them,” Gray said. “It's not anything different… Why I signed [with the Las Vegas Aces] is for these moments.”

Gray scored 60 points in Games 3 and 4 of the semifinals to lead the top-seeded Aces to victory over No. 4 Seattle. Not only did those performances come on the road, in front of an average of 13,000 Storm fans, but they ended Sue Bird’s career and possibly former MVP Breanna Stewart’s stint in Seattle. With this second wind just before her 30th birthday, Gray has done her best to seize the role of the W’s premier point guard.

“When Chelsea's rockin’ and rollin’, my biggest thing is just getting the hell out of her way,” said 2022 MVP A’ja Wilson. “I've never, ever seen someone, honestly, do that live, and dictate the game and just stay composed in all moments. She's built for this moment.”

JT out with bad knee

Despite their inability to win the big one, this era of Connecticut Sun basketball has featured a number of loveable characters. Among them is point guard Jasmine Thomas.

Thomas was the floor general for the No. 1-seeded Sun in 2021, but suffered a torn ACL less than a month into this season. A 36.6% three-point shooter since 2017 who’s been selected All-Defense in five of her past six seasons, her loss was significant for Connecticut; the Sun have missed her playmaking, shooting beyond the arc and point-of-attack defense. 

Connecticut lost the 2019 Finals in an elimination game to a historically dominant Washington Mystics offense, and after following that up with consecutive semifinals losses, has faced questions about whether it’s built to win a title. After possibly ending Candace Parker’s career in an elimination game this past Thursday, the Sun get a chance to prove the naysayers wrong in a Finals matchup with Las Vegas. Leading them vocally from the sideline will be the Duke alum Thomas.

Lexie Brown finds a role

When the Los Angeles Sparks signed Lexie Brown in the offseason, the off-ball guard was joining her fourth team in her first five WNBA seasons. Despite productive play in Minnesota, she was cut because of positional need, before getting shoehorned into a backup point guard role on the 2021 champion Chicago Sky.

Brown all but shed the “journeywoman” label this year. A down-ballot Most Improved Player candidate, she shot almost 40% from three with a 91st-percentile assist-to-turnover ratio, per Her Hoop Stats, in addition to her usual stout point-of-attack defense. Whether she started or came off the bench fluctuated as an older Los Angeles roster dealt with various injuries throughout the season. But it’s safe to say that a Sparks team that could clean house this winter has found a solid piece of the 2023 puzzle.

Elizabeth Williams continues solid play

For the first time since her rookie season, Duke’s first four-time All-American was a bench player. Also for the first time since her rookie season with Connecticut, she played outside Atlanta.

Elizabeth Williams signed as a free agent with Washington on a one-year deal before this season, envisioned as a stout defensive center in a high-powered offensive lineup that could hide her shortcomings on that side of the court—a la LaToya Sanders on that 2019 champion squad. But Mystics head coach/general manager Mike Thibault was extremely impressed by rookie center Shakira Austin, who he drafted with the No. 3 pick in April’s first-year player draft; she started, excelled and even garnered down-ballot All-Defense votes.

In her backup role, Williams was clearly overqualified playing against other bench players. As she hits the free agent market again this winter, it’s safe to say that teams will be wanting her consistently excellent defensive playmaking and rebounding.

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