Last season didn’t exactly end how Aaron Gray wanted it to, but he did get something out of it: PT. This summer didn’t go exactly the way he wanted it to, but he did get something out of it: a chance to test the market. Earlier this summer, Gray declined his nearly $1.1 million player option and will be a free agent whenever the lockout is settled. Fresh off a season-ending loss to the Lakers in the playoffs where he played very well during his time on the floor, Gray is aiming to finally earn consistent minutes next season. Somewhere. Anywhere, whether it’s in New Orleans or not.
I caught up with Gray earlier this summer to talk about what he’s working on for next season, the Chris Paul effect and overseas basketball.
*** *** ***
Dime: On the court in the offseason, what are some things you typically work on in your game?
Aaron Gray: As far as my game, definitely post moves, footwork. I’m doing a lot of stuff with movement, getting my feet in better positions, getting them quicker. There were a lot of times I’d be taken out of a game because teams would go smaller, and I wanna be to a point where he can leave me in and I can use my size against smaller guys.
I’ve really been concentrating on that. I really don’t move too far outside of 10-12 feet. I’m just trying to be solid at what I do. I’m a big man. I don’t want to be a big man who’s trying to be a guard…continue to work on my strengths. Obviously one of my biggest assets is using my size, using my body.
The league is getting bigger again man. I feel like there was a time when teams were dominating without size, the Amar’es of the world at the five, and everyone’s trying to get small and athletic. I feel like now the dominant teams, you need size. You need strength. Look at Andrew Bynum, and Dallas wins with two seven-footers. They really capitalized against a Miami team that went smaller. That’s definitely my focus.
Dime: With the lockout going on, is anything different for you this summer?
AG: Absolutely. I definitely concentrated most of my time early in the summer in New Orleans, just anticipating the lockout. I wanted to get some good time in with the coaching staff. I spent a lot of time one on one with Monty Williams and Randy Ayers, our two main coaches pretty much for the whole month of June. Even a week or two away in May, we got set up with a program with our strength and conditioning coach. But it’s definitely a huge twist. Obviously, I’m the type of player where I like to be around my team. I like to be continually working with the staff. Who does a better job than guys that are hired by the NBA?
Now, you’re kinda put in the position where you have to go out and find your own people depending on where you live. That’s been a huge change.
Dime: To go back to the playoffs, that was almost like your coming-out party in a way. Do you feel like it was? Playing against the Lakers…
AG: I felt like I had a great series, man, both mentally and physically. I didn’t want to get hurt in Game 1, but it’s something that happened. I came back. I felt like my team needed me, especially in the playoffs you don’t have the luxury of getting healthy.
But Coach really started putting confidence in me really in January. The last three months of basketball were just great. My confidence just continued to grow. My feel for the game was continuing to just get better and better. There were points were Coach was so confident, he was playing me and Emeka together. Really, it was just kinda on the fly. It wasn’t something we had practiced for. With D-West going down, and obviously Jason Smith was playing with a broken rib which a lot of people don’t realize. And Carl Landry was still learning our system. There were a lot of times you were kinda forced into it. It really started â€“ Emeka went down with the strained oblique, it put him out six weeks â€“ and it just really gave me an opportunity to kind of just show what I had been working on all season. Obviously, the coaches and the players had great confidence in me, so I was able to step in and be successful.
Dime: Talk about the energy of the playoffs. Was there anything specific people did where you could say, “Okay, now I know it’s the postseason?”
AG: Yeah, just the energy level in both L.A. and in New Orleans. The intensity was unbelievable. It’s funny because in the regular season, every game matters. In the postseason, every possession matters. You don’t score and you give up a basket, you think “Man, that was a missed opportunity.” Obviously, feeding off the crowd. Sellouts. Plus, we had the experience of going against the Lakers. It’s not like we were being seen as NBA TV games. It’s not like we were the late-night game. We were prime time, ABC game, whatever, ESPN, every night. It’s just the pressure that kind of brings out the best in you. It was definitely in affect with not only me, but our teammates. With New Orleans, everyone thought we were gonna get swept. We were the one playoff series where everyone said, “Okay, guaranteed sweep.” Just to go to six games, obviously it’s not where we want to be but it was a huge step in the right direction for our program.
Dime: What do you have to do to become a guy who’s going to get minutes and numbers every game? Have the coaches told you anything specific?
AG: Yeah, I have to continue to work on my conditioning and my foot speed, being able to sustain long periods of time where I’m playing at a high level. Obviously, I do a lot of good things but continuing to improve on those good things just to make them better as far as being around the basket, guarding bigger guys, being strong. It’s stuff you have to continue to work on because Dwight Howard is not getting weaker this summer. Andrew Bynum, he’s not getting weaker this summer so if you don’t continue to grow with these guys, you’ll get left behind.
Dime: Are you expecting a bigger role next year?
AG: Um, it’s funny because for me every year has taken on it’s own identity. I’m definitely working hard to put myself in a position to get a bigger role. Obviously, when I sign a contract and get started… I feel like with New Orleans I built a lot of confidence and in my exit meetings, that’s one of the things that management and Coach Williams really talked about, was “You proved that you’re an NBA guy. Now prove you’re an every-night guy.” It’s just building the confidence for the coaching to put me in every game, no matter who we are playing against.
Obviously, that’s what I’m working towards and what I expect of myself. If it happens that way, who knows? But that’s the mindset I feel like every player has to have.
Dime: What’s it like playing with someone like Chris Paul?
AG: Ah, it’s unbelievable man. He is such a leader. He is such a competitor. People don’t understand there’s so much that he brings to the table that aren’t rendered specifically. Just his preparation or just for the way he handles the shootaround before a game, the intensity he brings on every possession. It’s like you’re out there guarding your man, and you see him playing so hard, it’s like “Man, this guy is playing so hard, making $15-20 million dollars… a star. What excuse can I give that I can’t be out here playing hard and going 100 percent?” So having a leader like that man is priceless.
Dime: What about the fan support in New Orleans? Do you think that will always be a problem? What’s the deal with that?
AG: Nah, I think it’ll continue to grow. When we have ownership and a plan… We were great most of the season last year and then in the playoffs, we really took off. We were able to feed off them and play better. Obviously, it’s something we need to improve on. But as a team, we need to improve so why can’t we ask the fans to improve you know?
Dime: To go back to you, with the lockout going on, have you talked about playing somewhere outside of the NBA?
AG: I think every player keeps his options open. I’ve been talking to my agent back and forth. There’s teams calling every other day it seems like. I feel like that’s a great option for any player. Obviously, it’s kind of a waiting game right now, but people want to play basketball man. I don’t think if you talked to or interviewed a player, anyone would sit here and say that they wanted to not play competitive basketball for a year. Obviously, those are things you need to talk about with the agents and put together a plan, and kind of wait and see what happens. There’s nothing that’s really definite right now. I think that’s what I’ve done with my agent. We are continually talking and putting together a plan for when to workout, when to play basketball, when to play five on five, when we think we’re going to need to be ready for the season. It’s all a chess game right now.
Dime: You were saying anyone pretty much everyone just wants to play. Have any other players talked to you about playing overseas? Anyone else you know that’s really interested?
AG: You know I’ve talked to a bunch of guys, especially from New Orleans, especially from Chicago and I think there’s so much uncertainty right now and I think everyone is trying to be so positive. We want to play basketball. We want to stay in the United States and that’s obviously option number one. I think people are starting to put in a plan B. But it’s one of those things where you are trying not to concentrate too much on plan B because you’re hopeful on plan A. But I think right now guys are just real positive. We want to get this agreement. We want to play basketball. That’s our main concern.
Dime: For you next season, whenever that does happen, what will be a successful season for you? I’m assuming you want to start getting consistent minutes all the time?
AG: Yeah absolutely. I wanna go somewhere I can have an impact, where I can be given an opportunity every night. Those are just personal goals of mine. Obviously, depending on who I’m playing for, what the situation is, who else is on the team… I feel like I’m real positive. I want success for my team so much I’m willing to put myself in a secondary position. Obviously, the competitiveness comes out in you and you want to be able to help contribute every night. That was one of the greatest things being in the Laker series and you’re a main contributor. There’s no feeling like it.
What kind of role should Gray have next year wherever he plays?
Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.