The absence of David West will obviously have a huge effect on this Hornets team. In the long run, any realistic expectations of a first round upset effectively went out the window. In the short term, Carl Landry has been promoted to the starting power forward spot, performing admirably and making Dell Demps look like a genius in the process (despite the efforts of an unnamed shooting guard in Sacramento). One of the less obvious effects of the Hornet captain's heart-breaking injury, is that Monty Williams will now have to rely on the likes of Aaron Gray, Jason Smith, and maybe even David Andersen in crucial times this season and perhaps in the playoffs. One of these players has already stepped up and proven he can perform in pressure situations of tight games. Join me after the jump to discuss the emergence of The Incredible Bulk, The Yeti, Mr. Big Nasty himself, Aaron Gray.
I probably should not be using the word "emergence" here, as Gray has been pretty steady all year when his number was called. Aside from a few games in which he could not stop fouling long enough to stay on the floor, Gray has brought about what you would expect from a backup center in this league. He may not be threatening Dwight Howard for the number one spot, but all that Mburn that was given to DJ Mbenga seems rather Mblock-headed (sorry). Throughout the season, Gray has proven to be a solid, if foul-prone, post defender, an efficient shooter from the paint, and a tenacious rebounder. Recently, however, Gray has come up huge in the overtime win over Utah, chipping in some crucial points and rebounds, along with icing the game with four straight free throws in the extra period. Coach Williams showed faith in the 7 footer by keeping him in the game for most of the fourth quarter as well as all of overtime. After the game Williams admonished praise on Aaron for delivering when given the chance.
Let's take a look at how Aaron stacks up against the other Hornets who man the center position:
The first noticeable thing is that none of these guys can really be counted on to pick up the slack of West's scoring duties, as Emeka seems to be the most "prolific" scorer of the bunch. Read that sentence again. Yeesh. Anyways, Gray is the best offensive rebounder of the group, sporting an impressive 13.6, which would be good for second in the league (tied with Kevin Love) had Aaron played the requisite minutes for the score books. Emeka does qualify for that list and checks in at #8. Gray's defensive rebound rate of 24.2 would slot just behind Emeka at #11 in the league. The lesson learned here? Any way you slice it, Aaron Gray is an elite NBA rebounder. That skill alone is vital for a Hornet second unit that often struggles to get good looks, and is not good enough defensively to afford many second-chance opportunities to their opponents. Gray's advantages over Smith in this department are quite staggering, and in my opinion, show that it would be unwise to leave Mr. Smith out there for long stretches at the 5.
As I said earlier, none of these guys will wow you with their offensive output, but the Hornet offense does appear to be better with Okafor and Gray on the court, as their offensive ratings are quite similar, and considerably higher than Smith's. This may seem odd, considering Smith seems like the "offensive" option of the three, due to his smooth jumper. However, as FG% reflects, Smith makes his living on that 18-20 foot jumper, which unless you are a 7 foot German named Dirk, is no way to efficiently get your points. Now, Smith's pick-and-pop skills will certainly come in handy with David West sidelined, but Gray's career-high .625 FG% is nothing to dismiss. Gray's meager 8.9 points per 36 minutes (on a very low 12.1 usage rate) may look unimpressive on paper, but his offensive rebounding and high shooting percentage are enough to justify giving the big man some minutes.
On the defensive end, I don't have any statistics to throw at you, but I can tell you that Gray's size causes problems for opposing offenses. He may not block a ton of shots, but his presence in the lane changes the way the offense attacks. Similar (albeit on a smaller scale) to the way we saw Tyson Chandler alter a ton of shots, while blocking only a few, Gray has the size and length to deter opponents' drives to the basket, and force them into shots with a higher degree of difficulty. In the post, if Aaron can manage to not commit a foul there is a good chance that the opposing big will not score. He is big and tall enough to force players into tough shots, and often does not leave his feet to do so, limiting his susceptibility to pump fakes.
Of course, Gray is a backup center who has struggled to earn playing time for his entire career. There has to be some noticeable flaws in his game. Look no further than his career-high 22.2 turnover rate, a number that is even more unbelievable when considering his minuscule usage rate. Honestly, I was a bit surprised by this mark, as I would not have categorized Gray as turnover-prone. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking it may be due to offensive fouls, ill-advised passes ("trying to be Magic" as Monty Williams put it), and an occasional case of Hilton-hands. Whatever the reason, this incredibly high turnover rate puts a damper on the stellar shooting percentage of Gray and limits his use as a reliable offensive option. Another factor that often comes into play for Aaron is his tendency to foul. As you can see, Aaron commits approximately 6 fouls every 36 minutes. That mark would be a career best for him. Now backup centers are supposed to use their fouls and perhaps serve as some type of physical presence while on the court. Aaron, however, has a tendency to pick up fouls 20 feet away from the basket, and by constantly moving on screens. Gray seems to have improved on some of these problems recently, but at any given time, foul trouble is a big threat to limit his effectiveness.
Overall, I think Aaron has lived up to, or surpassed many of our expectations of him this season. In fact, I believe he probably deserved more minutes early in the season, when Monty resorted to small-ball tactics or inexplicably handed Mbenga a Mbunch of minutes (last time, I swear). Gray certainly has some large holes in his game, as most backups do, but he appears to have the requisite skills (and certainly the size) to be an effective center in the league. Hopefully his conditioning issues are a thing of the past, and he can take advantage of an opportunity to contribute to crucial games. Monty Williams called Gray "the difference" after the Utah win. I think that Aaron may just prove to be the difference maker again, when the Hornets need a boost during this run. What do you think?