After leading a young University of California team to a WNIT championship, Washington Mystics draft pick Alexis Gray-Lawson suddenly finds herself fighting just to play at all on U.S. soil.
Like many other rookies, it's no secret that she has a tough road ahead of her to even make the Mystics roster of 11 players.
"You've got 11 player rosters that are so tightly contested, so many great players out there looking for a job in the league," said New York Liberty coach Anne Donovan in an interview with Swish Appeal. "And I don't think anyone could have dreamed that we'd be where we are 14 years later and with so much potential for what's ahead... I think that the level of women's basketball has just risen, I think we have a lot of talent out there."
Compounding the challenge of roster cuts and the loss of the Sacramento Monarchs (11 less roster spots) for the 2010 Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award winner is her 5'8" stature. After leading the Pac-10 in scoring during 2010 conference play from her natural position of shooting guard, it is assumed that she will not only have a more difficult time scoring against the taller defenders of the WNBA but will also have to learn the point guard position, not to mention having to defend taller players.
The uncertainty of her positional transition and the roster limitations have led some people to call into question whether she will be able to succeed in a league that has become increasingly talented since its inception. Yet even in acknowledging the challenging situation ahead of her, Gray-Lawson sees it as one more basketball learning opportunity.
"I'm definitely blessed just to get drafted no matter where it was," Gray-Lawson told Swish Appeal in an interview last week. "I'm just trying to continue to learn more about my teammates and be a part of this system."
Obviously, any rookie who gets drafted and shows up to camp wants to take advantage of the opportunity. But what might they actually need to do? And what might be their mindset going in?
In a phone conversation with Swish Appeal from Washington, D.C. last week, the Bay Area native shared insight about her mindset leaving home for the first time to prepare for her first job, which began yesterday with the opening of Mystics training camp. Despite the uncertainty around even making the roster, Gray-Lawson spoke about the opportunity with an easy sense of humor and typical Bay Area calm that exuded the confidence and humility of a first round draft pick.
As training camps open and we all root for our favorite underdogs to make the roster, Gray-Lawson provided us with a glimpse into the mindset and daily schedule of a rookie at one of the toughest times ever to make a WNBA roster.
7:30 am EST: Wake up, eat breakfast, head to the gym
Although Gray-Lawson initially felt some anxiety about moving away from the Bay Area for the first time, she has gotten settled in Arlington, Virginia and has already grown to like the city and the people there. Most importantly, she's getting along well with her coaches and teammates, some of whom have Pac-10 connections.
"The Pac-10 is definitely representin' in Washington," she said with a tinge of excitement in her voice. "Like, Nicole - she works in the office - she went to Arizona. And then Nikki Blue went to UCLA. And then I was at Cal and [Mystics general manager Angela Taylor] was at Stanford. So, it's actually a lot of Pac-10 love."
On the day of the draft, Taylor did relay via Twitter that there was a little rivalrous Cal-Stanford talk between she and her third round draft pick, which Gray-Lawson confirmed.
"[Taylor] was giving me so much grief about being at Cal but we go back and forth - we're always going to be rivals," said Gray-Lawson. "Right now, we're just trying to work together to win the championship trophy."
However, even "far away" from home, Gray-Lawson is finding comfort, even if it is from the familiarity of Stanford. Having found a bond with the GM, the first step to working toward a championship was getting herself prepared for camp.
10:00 am EST: Warming up and shooting around
As much as Gray-Lawson - and almost every rookie - speaks of the desire to come into camp and "work hard", in the current WNBA climate, there's a premium on versatile players who can maximize those limited roster spots. It was something that multiple general managers - including Taylor - mentioned during the off-season.
"Especially with 11 player rosters it's nice to have perimeter players that are versatile," said Taylor in a previous interview with Swish Appeal. "Certainly as we're building our team, the things that we've liked throughout - [Mystics head coach] Julie [Plank] coached at Stanford, I played at Stanford -- the things that led to Stanford's success is that at all five positions on the floor you had players who were versatile, players that could handle the ball. You had size on the perimeter who can post up smaller guards, who can spread the floor and shoot the three ball or handle in transition."
When talking about the different roles she played at Cal - although she was the primary scorer in her fifth year, she was more of a distributor in her fourth year - Gray-Lawson spoke about versatility in terms of being well prepared for the situations based upon what the team needs on either end of the floor.
"Coach [Joanne Boyle at Cal] always told me like, ‘You never wanna be just one type of player'," said Gray-Lawson. "Pretty much that means that like you don't want to put yourself in situations that you're not prepared for. My junior year, clearly when you play with Devanei [Hampton] and Ashley [Walker], you don't have to worry that much -- you get them the ball and you make sure that you know exactly where they're gonna be at that time and where they're most effective. And when they're scoring, then you kinda -- you don't have to lay back -- but you kinda say, ‘Ok - well let me get on the defensive end.' That was my thing my junior year. And then last year I had to do pretty much both because we didn't have that veteran scoring."
At the WNBA level, Gray-Lawson understands that part of that will mean learning to take that college experience of switching roles and "becoming a very good point guard". However, she also realizes that being versatile includes learning new roles and finding ways to compensate for her relative height disadvantage.
"As far as my height goes, it's not that big of a deal because I'm usually stronger than a lot of people. So as far as strength goes, I'm able to guard a lot of people taller than me. Like for example, this year I had to guard [Stanford forward] Kayla [Pedersen] and everybody knows that Kayla is 6'4" and she's naturally a post player that got turned into a guard. So for me it was easier to guard her because me and her were -- as far as strength goes - about the same but she was taller than me so she could shoot over me. So just making sure that you learn certain techniques to guard bigger players. So for me, I think I'm going to use that to my advantage on this next level too. Even though a lot of people are taller than me, I can also get past them and I can also defend."
She's got ample opportunity to use what she learned in college against pro-caliber players.
11:00 am - 1:00 pm EST: Voluntary workouts
Last week's workouts were entirely voluntary and gave Gray-Lawson the opportunity to work with coaches and other players before jumping into training camp. Some of the things she worked on during those workouts were moving without the ball more on offense and learning the team's strategies playing screens and switching onto post players defensively. As she mentioned regarding Pedersen, she feels as though she's gaining confidence using her strength against WNBA players on defense.
One of the things Taylor has said previously is that Gray-Lawson needs to demonstrate in order to make the Mystics roster is the ability to play both the guard positions and being able to score against pro defense. With workouts she's getting a sense of how to do those things as well. However, among the more interesting things she talked about is the process of learning how not to be the star player.
"For the most part, everybody's just been making sure just like be confident," said Gray-Lawson. "Even if you're doing something wrong, make sure you're going hard. Make sure you're basically cheering your teammates on for times when you may not start and be like it was in college - you might be on the bench and you need that support system. Just different aspects of the game. Just learning how to be the best leader and learning how to lead veterans and not just young players. And that is a clearly different role than I was playing this year."
Early afternoon: Shower & lunchtime
Another new role for Gray-Lawson living on her own: grocery shopping.
At Cal, her favorite foods - as well as most Cal athletes, according to her -- included Telegraph Avenue hot spots Chipotle and Blondie's Pizza. Her mother took care of the grocery shopping. With a little help from the Mystics staff, she's learning to do her own grocery shopping as well.
"It's weird cause we're in the grocery store and I'm sitting there trying to think of everything my mom would pick up," she said laughing. "I'm not the one that goes grocery shopping - usually my mom would go grocery shopping for me and my teammate Tasha and we would just have to put things together. So it's definitely a different experience but I'm learning how to pick the right things out of the variety of things. So it's just a learning curve I guess."
She didn't specify if she would cut down on Chipotle.
Late Afternoon: Nap and hanging out with teammates
One of the most exciting things about coming to the Mystics for Gray-Lawson was the opportunity to play with her favorite WNBA player, Alana Beard. Although Beard is out for the season after ankle surgery, she has still been giving the rookie advice and giving her a few pointers on what to focus on in camp.
One of the biggest lessons she's learned from her veteran teammates is that improvement never ends, even after winning multiple gold medals and WNBA championships.
"I'm just trying [to work on] little things to make everything perfect," she said. "Just wanting to become a perfectionist. Like if you ever look at Katie Smith, like she's a perfectionist and she works hard at everything she does and that's why she's so successful. So for me, I'm just trying to follow in those footsteps and making sure that I'm doing everything correct and if I'm not correct, learning how to do it correct."
Evening: Watching a little of the NBA playoffs
While it is also widely noted that Gray-Lawson is a fan of a certain All-Star Los Angeles Lakers guard, the southern California franchise is not the only NBA one she follows.
"Oh yeah, you know I love Monta - his game is ridiculous," she said when coerced by the interviewer to give the Golden State Warriors some love. "Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry. I mean, they're good. They could have did better this year, but you know I'm from Oaktown. And in Oakland, you cannot not go for the Warriors if you're from Oakland."
But fortunately for her basketball sensibilities, she also managed to find a winning role model. However, she appreciates the Lakers' Kobe Bryant not only for what he does on the court, but how he prepares for the game off of it.
"If anything, everybody knows Kobe is my favorite player and one thing I say is that people can question if he is going to do this or is he going to do that on that one night, but nobody can ever question his work ethic," she said. "And I think I'm the same way - I'm going to make sure that I'm doing all the little things right, making sure that I'm working hard as possible not just to make the team but to make my teammates better and that's what's most important. So that's pretty much just my focus."
Night: Bedtime and looking forward to the next day
However, while she is clearly focused on overcoming the odds and making the Washington Mystics' roster right now, she also has other options.
While visiting law schools at some point in the future and pursuing a career as a criminal trial lawyer is on the horizon, she is also looking forward to playing overseas this fall, independent of whether she makes the Mystics.
"I'm working on getting overseas in the fall," she said. "I have no idea what's going on with that. I've talked to some teams in Turkey, some teams in Spain. So I'm kinda just working on that right now. I would love to play overseas - it's a different experience. So I'm excited to be able to take that step. And also at the same time trying to prepare for law school. I want to actually visit some law schools and kind of check that out. So I have like a whole bunch of things that I want to do so I'm just kinda - gotta figure out how I'm going to do it all."
But with plenty options on the table to work with and figure out, Gray-Lawson is taking it one day at a time and focusing on the things she can control. She's following the advice of former Cal teammate and Seattle Storm forward Ashley Walker in particular.
"She just told me to just play my game," said Gray-Lawson of Walker's advice for her. "Go in there, when you make a mistake, don't get discouraged - just pick yourself up. She's like, ‘You know as a rookie, you're going to make mistakes. You might get yelled at. You might get your name called but just go in there and play your hardest and then at the end of the day, you let God handle the rest.' And that's pretty much my focus too: is to go in and work hard and just work hard as hard as I can and give it 100%. And if I do that and I do all that and I leave it on the floor, it's up to them."
Part 2: Gray-Lawson's reflections on her career at Cal and "undercoverly" rooting for Stanford.
Note: We thank Alexis for only suggesting that the Warriors "could have done better this year" instead of utilizing any number of other appropriate descriptors for their 2009-10 performance. We too hoped that the Warriors could have done better than 26-56, the perennial hope for a Warriors fan over the last 15 years or so. In any event, may we suggest a career in Warriors public relations at some point, Alexis?