Wake's Gray steps up

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Most basketball players have to adjust to being complementary players when they get to college.

Justin Gray wasn't one of them, as the Wake Forest senior guard is in a lead role for the first time since he was a sophomore in high school.

Growing up in Charlotte, N.C., Gray spent three seasons on the same Amateur Athletic Union team with Rashad McCants. At Oak Hill, the hoops finishing school in rural Virginia, he fed Carmelo Anthony. Gray's freshman season at Wake revolved around Josh Howard, and the previous two were spent as Chris Paul's sidekick.

"I'm used to being the No. 2 guy," Gray said. "I think I took to that role pretty well. This year, I'm one of the premier guys on the team. I have to perform much better. There's a lot more pressure, but I feel I'm up to it."

Gray will bring a team-high 18.4-point average to Comcast Center tonight. He also leads Wake Forest in assists, which isn't necessarily a good thing because the Demon Deacons have found no one else to get them into their offense.

Gray committed 27 turnovers over one three-game stretch at the point in November, which led coach Skip Prosser to shift him back to the wing and try freshmen Harvey Hale and Shamaine Dukes there.

"We tried Justin there, we tried Harvey Hale there, we tried Shamaine Dukes there," Prosser said. "As Morgan Wootten used to say, it begins at the beginning, at the point guard. We have been inconsistent there, and our play has reflected that."

Gray did not expect to conclude his college career without Paul, who entered the NBA draft after two seasons with the Demon Deacons. Paul, who went to the Hornets, leads all NBA rookies in points, assists and steals, which hints at the problems Wake Forest has had filling the void.

"You're not going to find a replacement for Chris Paul," Prosser said. "You might find a substitute, but there's a difference. At this time last year, Chris was convinced he wasn't leaving. When Chris decided to go pro, it was more difficult to find a high-level, ACC-caliber point guard. That's the reality of our situation."

Paul had one advantage that his successor doesn't, as he got to kick the ball out to Gray.

"It's not myself over there on the wing finishing plays," Gray said, "but that's the growing pains we've had to go through this season. We've had good looks; we just have to make shots."

The 6-foot-2 Gray has made 264 career three-pointers and figures to leave as Wake Forest's No. 2 in that department, behind Randolph Childress. He has made fewer than 40 percent of his field-goal attempts this season, mostly because opponents pay him so much attention.

Thanks to a 13-for-13 night at the free-throw line, Gray scored a career-high 37 points in a Nov. 29 victory over Wisconsin, Wake Forest's high-water mark this season. Its second-best win was over George Mason, and, like the Terps, the Demon Deacons are desperate for an ACC win.

In Gray, big man Eric Williams and wings Trent Strickland and Chris Ellis, Wake Forest has four seniors who have known nothing but the NCAA tournament in March.

"For some teams, that becomes a habit, almost a given," Gray said. "This year, we're fighting it. We have to step up our game just to make the tournament."

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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