After playing for the U.S. last summer at the under-21 world championships in Argentina, senior forward Taj Gray has many memories of his first trip to a foreign country, the most vivid being the time spent walking along the beach in Mar del Plata. "It was great to get a different experience," says Gray, a native of Wichita, Kans. "Then I got to compete every day with a lot of [college] players I had only read about or seen on TV. It gave me a much better view of life."
The view wasn't so good the summer before his senior year at Wichita East High: Gray was not among the approximately 360 players deemed worthy of an invitation to either the Adidas ABCD or the Nike All-America recruiting camp. He wound up going to Redlands (Okla.) Community College, but he finally popped up on the radar of major college coaches during his juco All-America sophomore season. He signed with Oklahoma and last season led the Sooners in scoring (14.6), rebounding (8.2) and blocks (1.8), while topping the Big 12 in field goal shooting (55.7%). As the conference's preseason pick for player of the year, Gray is in for another new experience. "This year he's going to be the first name on every opponent's scouting report," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson says. "That's [going to require] a big adjustment."
But Gray will get a lot of help, beginning with 6'8" senior forward Kevin Bookout, a four-year starter who had off-season surgery to repair the displaced ulnar nerve in his right elbow, an injury that limited his practice time last season. Another senior, 6'4" point guard Terrell Everett, is back at the position he manned so efficiently during the Sooners' march to a share of the Big 12 regular-season title.
Sampson wasn't happy with Gray's inconsistent play last season, so he showed him a chart highlighting the games in which the power forward had fewer than five rebounds or committed two fouls in the first 10 minutes. (That happened eight times in the Sooners' 33 games.) "There were times last year when I thought Taj looked like a first-round draft pick," Sampson says. "Other times I didn't think he could play for us."
For his part, Gray realizes he'll have to work harder than ever this season to meet expectations. Four years ago he never dreamed he would be regarded as the best player in the Big 12. "But," he says, shaking his head and laughing, "I'm believing it now." --S.D.
In his 12 years at OU, Kelvin Sampson has signed 25 juco players, including Taj Gray and Terrell Everett. He hopes his latest pickups, Michael Neal and Chris Walker, follow in the footsteps of Aaron McGhee, Ebi Ere and Quannas White, who helped lead OU to the Final Four in 2002.
Coach: Kelvin Sampson 2004--05 record: 25--8 (12--4, T1 in Big 12)
2005 tournament: Lost in 2nd round to Utah
ENEMY LINES an opposing coach's view
Taj Gray is a hell of an athlete, but he still needs to improve his fundamentals. He likes to dribble three or four times before he gets a shot off. So when he puts that first dribble down, you double him.... Kevin Bookout is more athletic than you think. He runs the floor well for a guy his size, and he never gets tired.... Terrell Everett does everything, but he can get a little wild. He'll dribble till there's no air in the ball.