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.
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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 – Emeka went down with the strained oblique, it put him out six weeks – 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.