Pitt's Gray doesn't regret returning for senior year
A last-minute offer afforded Charles Smith a private plane to Pittsburgh and a courtside seat at Petersen Events Center for the Pitt-West Virginia game Tuesday.
It was fitting that the former Pitt All-American arrived just as Aaron Gray was standing at center court, where he was presented with a framed jersey on Senior Night.
After all, Smith advised the 7-foot center to return for his senior season, a decision Smith himself had to make 19 years ago and one that ultimately paid great dividends.
"All I was was a simple voice who'd been there and done that," said Smith, now 41, who spent 10 seasons in the NBA. "At that point in time, when he made that decision, he knew it was the right decision. He didn't have to waver."
Now Northeast regional director for the NBA Players Association, Smith's main assignment is running its rookie transition program. He counseled Gray during the NBA's week-long, pre-draft camp in Orlando last year.
"Aaron was still debating whether he was going to leave school or come back to Pitt," Smith said. "We spent a few days together evaluating his decision. Aaron is a very smart young man from the standpoint that, when we met, he had all of his notes laid out in terms of pros and cons.
"I talked to him about his game, where he needed to improve. Last year, he probably would have gone in the first round, between 23rd and 25th. This year, he'll probably go between 9-15. Let's just say he made the right decision."
Gray didn't notice Smith's presence until halftime, but Gray's impromptu motivational speech in the locker room inspired the Panthers' second-half performance in the 80-66 victory. Afterward, Gray reflected on his time spent with Smith, which included some individual instruction.
"I had a solid five, six days with him," Gray said. "He just showed me the positioning, which is going to be the biggest thing for me. I get pretty good shots now. And he taught me how to seal people off."
Most important was Smith's advice on whether to return.
Smith similarly struggled with the decision in 1987, after he was projected to be picked somewhere between 10th and 15th. He elected to return, finished his career as Pitt's all-time leader in scoring and blocked shots, was named Big East Player of the Year and was selected to the U.S. Olympic team. Smith also completed his liberal arts degree.
The Philadelphia 76ers took Smith third overall, then traded his rights to the Los Angeles Clippers. Smith also played for the N.Y. Knicks and San Antonio Spurs.
Gray watched classmate Chris Taft leave after his sophomore season, only to drop to the Golden State Warriors in the second round (42nd overall). After an injury-plagued rookie season, Taft was waived last fall.
Smith believes Gray has a bright future and predicts a long NBA career, as long as Gray continues to display a strong work ethic and passion for the game.
"He's going to improve a lot more on the next level," Smith said. "I'd say Aaron is going to play 8-12 years in the NBA. He has a great attitude, has a thirst to learn, he's humble and coachable. Will Aaron be an All-Star in the NBA• I don't think so. Will he be a good player, a good backup center• I think so."
While Gray is consumed with leading No. 12 Pitt (25-5, 12-3) to clinch at least a share of the Big East Conference regular-season title, Smith believes Gray's 12-point, 13-rebound performance on Senior Night will be memorable.
"When making one of my decisions to come back here for my senior year, I don't regret it all," said Gray, who is averaging 13.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game this season. "This is my family now and they are going to be my family forever. I'm just so glad that I could spend this whole year and this whole experience with them."
Three pointers for a big man
Former Pitt star Charles Smith, who spent 10 seasons in the NBA, now works as a regional director for the NBA Players Association, primarily with its rookie transition program. Here are three areas where Smith believes Pitt senior Aaron Gray has room for improvement:
1. Releasing at apex of his shot: "He used to shoot the ball in the paint as he was coming down," Smith said. "He's got to read his defenders quicker. He works on releasing the ball at the height of his jump instead of coming down."
2. Putting the ball on the floor: "He's got to learn transition basketball," Smith said, "to get the rebound and start the fast break with one or two dribbles."
3. More consistency at free-throw line: Gray is shooting only 59.5 percent. "Aaron's a decent 10-foot shooter," Smith said. "His free throws can get better. You want to see if the guy has good mechanics. His mechanics are sound."
- By Kevin Gorman