Matt Gray’s ‘serving mentality’ carved a path home to coach with Raptors 905

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It was the summer of 2018 and Matt Gray was only two weeks into working under Nate Mitchell, an assistant coach with the Canadian senior men’s national team.

To that point, Gray’s only coaching experience was one season as a student manager with the University of Waterloo. Yet, there he was at the national training centre for Canada Basketball, putting a professional player through a workout for the first time.

It was an opportunity for Mitchell to put Gray to the test and see what he was really made of.

“When I was coming up, the people that helped me threw me in the fire,” Mitchell told Sportsnet. “It was kind of like, ‘Hey, man, here’s this guy, unexpected, you got 45 minutes to an hour, do what you do.’ It’s a shock but it prepares you.

“In those sink-or-swim type of situations, you really find out who is who. And honestly, I wasn’t worried about him.”

Mitchell might not have been concerned, but Gray certainly was. By the time he and the player were done with the workout, he felt like he had just blown his one chance.

“I remember that workout like it was yesterday,” Gray said in an interview with Sportsnet. “I was nervous, felt like I was stumbling over my words. When the workout finished, I thought I would never get a chance to lead a workout again. I thought it went that bad.”

Thankfully for the Mississauga, Ont., native, that wasn’t his one chance, and his story didn’t end there. That moment was one of many that helped mould Gray into a coach who could find his way back to his hometown — focused on player development — and working for the organization he grew up rooting for, as an assistant coach with Raptors 905.

Like many journeys to professional basketball, his wasn’t linear. Gray had to take multiple detours before finding his way home. He went from playing at St. Francis Xavier Secondary School (10 minutes away from the Paramount Fine Foods Centre where the 905 play) to Waterloo University, where one injury-plagued season led him to the difficult decision of stepping away from the game.

“I almost felt like a human band-aid,” Gray said of battling an MCL injury and concussion throughout that year. “Playing basketball became a bit more frustrating than enjoyable, so my second year at Waterloo, I decided to take it completely off … that was probably one of the hardest years of my life. When you stop playing, you kind of lose your identity.”

Despite the challenges, he couldn’t stay away from the game for long. He knew his time as a player was over but he found joy in helping others work on their game. Training players was another way to get back on the court, so he decided to “try this coaching thing out.”

Gray would spend his third year at Waterloo as a student manager for the varsity basketball team, using his own money to book gym time and get players onto the court so he could help them improve while also honing his own craft. It was around that time that he contacted Mitchell about the idea of studying under the veteran coach/trainer.

Along with being an assistant with the senior men’s program, Mitchell had been the head coach of the U23 national team and spent nearly 10 years coaching in the NBA ranks. He won a D League (now G League) title as an assistant with the 905, also spending time as a member of the coaching staffs with the Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets and Milwaukee Bucks.

As fate would have it, Mitchell was given the reins of the new national training centre for Canada Basketball around the time Gray had connected with him. While putting together a staff, Mitchell saw an opportunity for the up-and-comer. Gray changed his hours at his part-time job and dedicated his free time to learning under Mitchell.

During that summer, Gray showed a special ability to develop relationships with players almost instantly, to the point where guys wanted to keep working out with him. That gave Mitchell the confidence that Gray could handle things in his absence.

“Everybody loves him,” Mitchell said. “He’s worked with RJ Barrett, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Andrew Nembhard — like he’s worked with our best. Not just one or two times, this is weeks and multiple sessions where guys are calling him and are like, ‘Hey, are you available?’ That speaks to the level and volume of what he’s capable of.”

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After Gray’s summer at the national training centre ended, he spent one more year at Waterloo before heading down south to Baylor University to take on a graduate assistant role. Mitchell had told Gray how being a GA was a gateway into the NCAA coaching ranks, and it was former Canadian national team player Brady Heslip (a Baylor alumnus) who connected him to the Texas school.

Gray would spend two years at Baylor, and during that time prove that his ability to build relationships with players wasn’t something exclusive to Canadian talent. He’d end up forging a strong bond with now Sacramento Kings guard Davion Mitchell.

Not only did the two of them win an NCAA national title together in 2021, but Davion also brought Gray and the other graduate assistants to the green room the night he was drafted ninth overall into the NBA, as a “thank you” for all the work they had put in.

“I feel like (the graduate assistants) changed the trajectory of my career,” Davion said to Sportsnet. “Especially Matt Gray, he has a different level of basketball mind that a lot of people don’t have, so he taught me a lot. He was so honest with me … when you see somebody working as hard (as you), doing stuff for coaches, but also doing work for me, it’s like he really wanted to see you do better and that’s what I love about him.”

Matt Gray and Davion Mitchell following the Toronto Raptors taking on the Sacramento Kings. Wednesday, March, 20, 2024. (Photo Courtesy Matt Gray)

For all the qualities Davion and others appreciated about Gray, there was one thing they knew he couldn’t grasp, being a scrimmage referee in practice.

“Oh my god he was horrible,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “I used to always give him problems every time he’d ref, I was always yelling at Matt, but it was all love though, he knew he wasn’t that good.”

Sure enough, Gray conceded that his skills with a whistle weren’t great and hadn’t markedly improved in the G League. “I definitely still catch some heat here with the 905,” he said with a grin. “Thankfully with our schedule, we don’t get a chance to play five-on-five too much, so my bad refereeing skills don’t get exposed as much.”

Following the title run with Baylor, Gray spent a season with Boston College as a video coordinator, and once that was done, the 905 reached out to him about joining their staff. Returning to Mississauga to continue his career felt like a “no-brainer.”

After spending three years in the NCAA ranks, it was an easy decision for Gray to come home and join an organization that preaches passionately about player development the same way he does.

And to little surprise, his knack for getting guys to buy into his style and training ideas worked as well with the 905 as it had during his previous stops.

“Players flock to him,” 905 head coach Eric Khoury told Sportsnet. “He’s unbelievably sharp and his ability to teach developmental skills is second to none. He’s able to execute things in such a clean way that guys are able to grasp it.

“To Matt’s credit, even if he lived an hour away, he’d be available, but he’s only about 10 minutes away (from the arena) and whenever guys want to come shoot or work, he’s always available. To have a local guy, such a great coach who’s local, it’s very fortunate.”

The thing that’s made Gray successful at all his destinations, and why players gravitate towards him, is his genuine investment in their success.

“It’s where I find my joy,” he said when asked why player development is special to him. “Getting on the floor … helping them get better and seeing that progress. We want to make sure these guys are getting better and are prepared for future opportunities.”

This year especially, Gray and the staff had to prepare their G League roster for potential call-ups. Going into the season finale on Friday night, the 905 have a 12-21 record in a year marred by injuries and roster turnover. But as the Raptors went through their own injury issues, it provided a silver lining for players looking for an opportunity with the big club.

Five G Leaguers have signed 10-day contracts with the Raptors this season, and all of their two-way players have ended up on an NBA court at some point as well.

One of those players, Markquis Nowell, came into the year as an undrafted guard signed by Toronto and started as the G League squad’s floor general. His play was impressive enough to earn him a selection to the G League’s Up Next game, but after suffering a hamstring strain in January, the team eventually waived him so other players could fill that two-way roster spot.

Nowell barely let that setback affect him. In fact, he was back on the floor for the 905 after a 21-game absence on Wednesday. His return might raise eyebrows as the season is nearing its finale, but in playing those contests, the team retained Nowell’s G League rights for two years.

Making that happen to end his first professional season on a strong note was a priority for Nowell, and he credits much of his recovery to the work he put in with Gray and the staff.

“We put a lot of hours in together,” Nowell said after playing against the Motor City Cruise. “I’ve enjoyed moments with (Gray) on and off the court … I really appreciate (the staff) because they allowed me to feel healthy and allowed me to get back sooner than I thought I was going to get back.

“It’s a confidence booster because I know he sees the game the same way that I see it. He’s very passionate about the game of basketball and he likes to work and I love to be around people who like to work on the craft.”

Gray’s journey, filled with pitstops, is not dissimilar to many coaches. But only a handful of them get to bring their talent back to where it all started — even at a time when Canadian talent is making considerable strides in the basketball ranks.

Both senior national teams are heading to the Summer Olympics in Paris with medal aspirations (the men qualifying for the first time since 2000), and for what it’s worth, Gray wants to represent his country as well. Not only are the current senior squads thriving, but the future is also bright, as talent north of the border is flooding the college ranks down south.

Gray’s story is simply proof that the game is also thriving off the court, with coaches like him blossoming at the same pace as the on-court talent.

He’s a national champion and a coach who’s put in work with Canada Basketball and the Raptors organization, but if you ask Gray how he’d like to be seen, he’d say he’s a servant above all else.

“I’m all about serving other people,” Gray said. “It’s paid off in terms of my own journey, helping others has helped me in terms of where I’ve been able to go, so I just want to help people get better, help people reach their goals … I just kind of have a serving mentality.”

He may not have realized it when he “sank” during that first workout with a pro in 2018, but it’s that innate desire to serve players, no matter the lengths, that helped him eventually float. It’s the quality that Mitchell first recognized, that Davion felt gratitude towards, and the one that Khoury and Nowell have appreciated throughout a tumultuous season.

Gray doesn’t know where his serving mentality and love for player development will take him next, whether that’s with the national program this summer or back with the 905 next season. That uncertainty is par for the course as a coach trying to rise through the ranks, but for now, he’s enjoying being home.



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