Upon returning from an exhibition tour of Australia in late August, one of the first things a travel-weary LSU basketball coach Johnny Jones did was meet with senior point guard Josh Gray.
Jones hadn’t seen Gray in nearly two weeks because Gray was left behind after he participated in an unsanctioned game just before the Tigers packed their bags for a long trip that included five games.
What could have been a contentious meeting, to be sure, was positive.
“Yeah, we talked when we got back,” Jones said recently. “Josh understood the position he put himself in and the position he put our team in with the choices he made. But that’s part of it; it’s part of growing up.
“I think he’s been at his best on and off the floor since then,” Jones said. “He understands the mistake he made and the impact that it could have had on his future. But Josh has been extremely focused since, so it’s been good for us.”
What’s been good for Gray is an opportunity to play for the same team for a second year in a row after suiting up for six schools in as many seasons since his sophomore year of high school in Lake Charles.
“It’s more comfortable being back home with family, with friends and with great coaches,” Gray said. “I’m just enjoying my time while I’m here.”
With that comes an opportunity to wipe out the disappointment of an up-and-down junior season, his first at LSU, after averaging 34.7 points and 5.9 assists at Odessa (Texas) College the previous year.
Gray said he felt like he took a step in the right direction by remaining at LSU after averaging 7.1 points and 3.8 assists, numbers that didn’t match the potential he showed as a junior-college All-American.
Things started going sideways when Gray, who scored the game-winning layup with 7 seconds to play in a huge 74-73 road upset of No. 16 West Virginia on Dec. 4, sprained his ankle in the next game.
He wound up shooting just 39.6 percent from the field and averaged 2.6 turnovers per game, which, combined with the ankle injury, allowed Tim Quarterman to take over as the starting point guard.
“The injury was included, but there were a lot of ups and downs from me getting out of the lineup to turnovers,” Gray admitted. “All of that just made me go in a downward spiral. I lost confidence and I lost faith, and my spirits were down.”
Now, all that is almost behind him.
Gray was suspended for the regular-season opener against McNeese State because of his participation in that unsanctioned game, but he showed something Friday night in a 98-72 exhibition win over Southwest Baptist.
He scored 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting and had four assists and two steals in 22 minutes even though he committed four turnovers.
Jones is going to need good play from Gray with the Tigers down a guard after Keith Hornsby had minor surgery for an undisclosed injury and will be sidelined indefinitely.
Jones said he saw a difference in Gray over the summer but really likes what he’s seen since he didn’t make the Australia trip.
“He’s had an opportunity to focus on this season and the things he did last year, the role he played and how can he get better,” Jones said. “He has been relaxed and is taking some pressure off himself in terms of what is expected in his performance.
“He’s grown up a lot. Even with the last little episode, that was a great learning experience for him as well. He’s been even more focused since then.”
Gray said what he went through last season and not being with his teammates on the trip Down Under “really hurt a lot,” but at the same time, it helped mold him and prepare him for this season.
The keys, he said, are being more positive and confident after losing his jump shot last season, better shot selection and limiting turnovers.
“All the stuff I went through kind of set me up for the season,” he said. “It was a learning experience and that grounded me and made me more disciplined in structure.
“I’ve been refocused and locked in, so I feel like I’ll have a better year than last year.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.