Justin Gray is a 33 year old 188cm guard from Charlotte, North Carolina that is playing his 12th professional season and first with U-Banca Transilvania Cluj Napoca (Romania-Liga Nationala). He is versatile enough to excel at point guard as well as big guard. An enthusiastic, high-energy guard who brings a swagger to the team. Gray is one of the team’s vocal leaders, possesses great quickness, and is an exceptional perimeter shooter. He started his basketball career at Wake Forest where he played with NBA superstar Chris Paul. Gray played at Wake Forest from 2002-2006 and in his senior year played 33 games: ScoreACC-4(18.2ppg), 3.6rpg, AssistsACC-5(4.3apg), 1.0spg, FGP: 36.7%, 3PTACC-4(36.1%), FTACC-5(83.4%): Finished career ranked 8th in Wake Forest history in scoring (1,946 points), 1st in three-point attempts (860), 2nd in three-point field goals (319) and 8th in assists (382). His 319 career three-point field goals are 7th best in ACC history. In 2006-2007, he started his professional basketball career and in 11 seasons has been the ultimate basketball globetrotter as he played in 13 countries like Belgium, Czech Republic, Poland, Greece, Ukraine, China, Germany, France, Turkey, Lebanon, Bulgaria and Belarus. He won two titles with CEZ Basketball Nymburk (Czech Republic-NBL) and three titles with Tsmoki-Minsk (Belarus-Premier League). Six years after last having played in Germany with the Fraport Skyliners, he sat down with German Hoops before a Champions League qualifying game in Ludwigsburg.
Justin thanks for talking to German Hoops. Welcome back to Germany. You are in Ludwigsburg preparing for a Champions League qualifying game. You never played against the MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg. How excited are you to be back in Germany?
I am excited to be back in Germany. I had a good start with the Fraport Skyliners in 2011, but then got injured. I remember Germany as being a place where I was always treated well and fans were always in the arena´s. I am happy to play against Ludwigsburg tonight. It´s another new adventure.
It has been six years since you last played for a German club the Fraport Skyliners. Since then you have played in eight countries for eight teams. Before you landed in Frankfurt you had already played for seven teams in four countries. Do you feel like a basketball globetrotter at times?
Yeh you could say that. But nowadays it isn´t so typical for a player to be in one place for a long time. I am blessed that I have received so many opportunities from so many clubs in different countries. Teams wanting me is a testament to my skill and staying healthy. I will just continue to do what I do and hope teams continue to call my number.
You have a tough hurdle with the MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg who are the heavy favorite. They have a lot of depth. How do you feel will you be able to compete with them and come out with a win on the road?
It is a 2 games series so anything is possible. We have many new guys, but we simply need to play hard, compete and come together. At the end of the day it doesn´t matter who the coach, players or organization is, but how you play as a team for 40 minutes.
Your new team U-Banca Transilvania Cluj Napoca have won 9 club tiles since early 90´s and are defending league champions. You also have 2 ex BBL players on the roster with Giordan Watson and Alexander Rasic. How is the club shaping up and can you defend the title?
We played some friendly games against Romanian teams and so far everything worked out well for us. Key is to stay healthy and win all we can with the cup and league title. We basicly have to perform well and if we can do that then we feel comfortable that our chances will be good.
You have played with so many veterans in your career not only Americans, but also guys from Europe. What has it been playing with Aleksander Rasic. He came up in the Alba Berlin organization How have you been meshing with him on the court?
He has been injured, but it is always good to have a veteran around that knows the organization. He has been helping everyone out. We will be an important part to our success this season.
What besides winning three titles did you enjoy most in your time with Tsmoki-Minsk. How was the whole experience different for you being one of the lone Americans on the team?
I played two and a half seasons there. The organization treated me well and we won the league title and cup. For me the biggest thing with this team was being able to play in the VTB league, playing against all the big Russian teams and being a VTB league allstar. The tough part was how cold it was and all the traveling. However what was great was that your teammates counted on you a lot and that was a good feeling. I just did what I do well and had to be a leader. Teammates looked to me to make plays and be successful. I remember that we weren´t in the games in Moscow, but we were in some at home. What really stood out with CSKA Moscow was how well the organization was run. It was like a well-oiled team. That is the kind of team that you always want to be on.
Antonio Graves came in the stretch run. Did he tell any Frankfurt stories as that had been his last team before coming to Belarus?
Yes Antonio told about his experience in Frankfurt with the good and bad. He talked a lot about the organization and their Frankfurt lifer Quantez Robertson as well as the state of the league and how much it has grown since I was there. I helped him adjust to the team and we won some big games when he was there. Antonio really helped us out a lot.
In the 2013-2014 season you played briefly for Homenetmen Beirut (Lebanon-Division A). What kind of experience was it playing in the middle east? Did you have any memorable experiences in a palace?
Playing in the Middle East was definitely different.The club counted on you a lot more than European teams do, because there are less imports playing there. It was a fun experience as well as fans are always chanting during games and know a lot more about basketball than I was aware of. The club also treated me very well as they know that you aren´t in your home country and just try to make your stay as most comfortable as possible. Beirut is a very beautiful city something that I didn´t know until I got there. I had a beautiful place with a view on the mountains and water. I didn´t have a palace visit.
You have put up consistent stats your whole career. What has been your secret to not losing anything on your craft over the years?
It comes down to doing what I do best. I never have gone out and tried to prove something that I can´t do. Being consistent and always being able to give coach another option is important. Also important is knowing that you won´t always make shots, but continue to be willing and not run away from the big moments, but always believe in being successful.
You only had a short time in Frankfurt and suffered a serious injury. Do you ever think back what could have been had you stayed healthy?
Yes I do think about what could have been had I stayed healthy in Frankfurt. Even though I did get injured what still stands out in my mind was the group of guys we had who were talented and hungry to be successful. We had some successful guys like Jermario Davidson who had come from the NBA and guys like Tez and Jimmy Mckinney and a young Michael Thompson. All went on to have good careers. At the end of the day each guy wanted to do well and get better. Even after I was injured, the team didn´t give up, but did the best that they could and worked hard every day. Each player got better individually and moved on to be successful.
A lot has changed since then in that Jacob Burtschi, Jimmy Mckinney and Jermario Davidson have retired, but your still around, but so is Quantez Robertson. With his wild athleticism and quickness and terrorizing defense, he probably could of played in the NBA had he had a reliable shot. How do you remember him best?
Tez is still the guy that he was then. A guy that was super aggressive on defense, a good offensive rebounder, could go coast to coast or block shots. He made a career with the Fraport Skyliners. He is also one of those players that does what he does bestl and coach can trust him. Tez has found his niche and been consistent with it. He also has been very healthy and been a real iron man.
In our last interview in November 2011 you said this about Michael Thompson. “He has the tools to be a great point guard. He is getting a lot of confidence now with his extended playing time with my injury”. How have you followed his career over the years?
I have followed Juice since I left to when he played in France to Turkey. I haven´t talked as much with him, but I continue to keep an eye on him. I continue to follow him and at the end of the day I am always a fan and am always cheering for my ex teammates.
I still have your buzzer beater against Wurzburg in my mind today. Where does that rank in your all-time best game winning shots?
That game winner is always exciting to watch. The funny thing is when I walked in the Ludwigsburg arena yesterday for shoot around, head coach John Patrick saw me and joked “Hey the last time I saw you, you beat us with a buzzer beater”. I remember hitting a nice buzzer beater in the VTB league against Russian team Unics. That was a big win for us since we were a lot smaller club. You have to be confident to take a shot like that and making it. You won´t always make that big shot, but one shouldn´t be afraid to try.
Your ex teammate Petr Bender is still playing and has collected 18 titles with CEZ Basketball Nymburk (Czech Republic-NBL). Was winning those two titles your sweetest simply since it was your first?
Yes they were the sweetest, but I remember taking those first titles with Nymburk for granted. We were something like 30-1 that season and swept everyone in the playoffs. I thought Europe was going to be a breeze and that I would win everything, but that changed when I came to Greece and started losing against the big teams. I enjoy all the titles that I have won and all are special. I always tell my friends that when I come home you will call me a champ.
I remember your son being very young in Frankfurt. Is your son taking your footsteps with basketball or is he going in a different direction with sports?
Basketball has always been second nature to him. He has seen it all since being a toddler from the locker rooms, being at games, workouts and hanging out with NBA players. I believe that he wants to follow in my footsteps. I will help him anyway possible, but it will always be his decision. If he suddenly decides to want to play baseball or football or become a doctor or scientist then that is ok. I want to guide him as best I can through life being the best dad possible and helping him find his dreams and encouraging him. I don´t want to be like a coach, but just help him if he asks for advice, but not push him.
Who was the toughest player that you faced in the NCAA that made it to the NBA?
I have played against so many. Rashad Mccants was always tough to play. I hated chasing J J Reddick around screens. I played with Carmelo Anthony in high school. I was teammates with Chris Paul at Wake Forest and he is the best point guard that ever played the game. I just have been blessed to always be around good coaches, players and teams. I am in my 12th season. There aren´t many guys that haven´t lasted that long. I just go out and play and enjoy it
If you had to construct your own NBA Rushmore which 4 heads would you chose?
Jordan, Lebron, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul
Lebron James failed to win his fourth NBA title and is still three away from Michael Jordan. Where does Lebron stand right now in your opinion in the never ending debate of who is the best of all-time?
Jordan is the best of all-time and Lebron still has a way to go. One also can´t forget Kobe. Each one of these players were big in their time. These guys demand so much respect. Then there are other greats like Wilt Chamberlain or Oscar Robertson, but that was also another era. Jordan has been such an influence to the game off the court, but Lebron also continues to make strides. But on the court rings just don´t lie.
There has been criticism of Russell Westbrook to be focusing more on rebounding to help inflate his stats and possibilities of getting triple doubles instead of focusing on his defensive assignments. Do you feel that this is a fair assessment to the player Russell Westbrook?
No I don´t. At the end of the day he averaged a triple double. This season will be crazy when he plays with Paul George and Melo. He deserved the MVP last season. He always played with some edge, but since Kevin Durant left he has really played with a chip on his shoulder.
How do you summarize the 2017 NBA Draft. What sleepers do you see playing a role in the NBA?
My NBA sleeper is Dennis Smith Jr. I have seen him play and really like his game. His first step is so quick. I think that he will benefit from Dirk as he has played with some good point guards and will teach him some things. I think that he will have the opportunity there to play free and work through his mistakes.
Where will the journey of the Houston Rockets go this season with Chris Paul and James Harden in the back court. Do they have enough to make a serious run at the title or is something missing?
It will be interesting to see how successful Houston will be this season in Mike Dántoni´s system. I know that Chris Paul is really looking forward to this season being able to play with another superstar like James Harden as well as not always have to create on every play.
How do you rate the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade? Who got the better deal and which team will profit better in the long run?
Only time will tell. I think at the moment the Cavs got the better deal. They got some good offensive pieces including a Jeff Green and losing Avery Bradley really hurt Boston. But then again if Boston gets some guys to step up like Marcus Smart and the new kid from Louisville then it could work out to their benefit. The first game will be exciting between the Celts and Cavs. Lebron has been in 6 NBA finals so it is hard to bet against him.
What will the Oklahoma Thunder be capable with their trio of all-stars Westbrook, George and Melo?
The NBA is changing as the league is stretching out. It will be fun to watch this team. I hope that everyone stays healthy and I hope they can show how they can mesh together. It´s not too bad a job for Coach Billy Donovan when you have players like that.
What was the last movie that you saw?
The Khalief Boarder documentary
Thanks Justin for the chat.