By R.L. Bynum
When 6–3 four-star Texas power forward RyLee Grays arrives at Carolina a year from now, she’ll not only swat away shots but conventional expectations for a post player.
The third member of UNC’s talented women’s basketball recruiting Class of 2023 combines a versatile skill set that includes excellent ballhandling skills, relentless play around the rim and top-level defense, along with a work ethic and intensity that sets her apart from most players.
Jere Adams, her coach at Parkland High School, just south of Houston, says she has the rare luxury of her best player being the hardest worker. It all comes from an unwavering work ethic that Grays says comes from her desire to be the best she can be.
“My parents have always pushed me to work hard, but I feel like having a good work ethic is not something that you really can necessarily teach,” said Grays, who was already 6–0 in eighth grade and has a wingspan of 6–5. “I feel like it’s something that you just have and I’m glad I have it. It’s just a thing that I’ve always done on and off the court. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t do it.”
She not only wows her teammates on the court, but Adams also says Grays is “extremely funny and down to earth” and keeps them smiling on and off the court.
“I love seeing people smile,” said Grays, who likes to pattern her game after former Tennessee and current Chicago Sky star Candace Parker. “I love making people smile and I just feel like it’s something so simple and easy to do, but it can really change or make someone’s day.”
When she committed to Carolina during her official visit in early June, that no doubt made the day of Coach Courtney Banghart and her future teammates.
Grays took unofficial visits to N.C. State, Florida, Florida State, Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma, SMU and Ole Miss but only took an official visit to UNC.
“I took that one and I fell in love. They were always kind of the frontrunner,” said Grays, explaining that what set Carolina apart from the others was “the family environment. I really feel welcome and in the right place when I’m there.”
Grays quickly fell in love with the trees, the green spaces and the nice weather in North Carolina when she made unofficial visits in October to UNC and N.C. State. There wasn’t, of course, a return trip to Raleigh. She’ll be happy to trade the humidity of Texas summers for the humidity of the Triangle.
“I really want to get somewhere with four seasons and then also when I went on my official visit I feel like I really clicked with all the players,” Grays said.
Grays, ranked No. 17 nationally in the class by Prep Girls Hoops, No. 21 by ASGR and No. 72 by ESPN, joins two five-star Class of 2023 UNC commitments in ESPN’s No. 4-ranked 6–4 stretch-five Ciera Toomey of Denmore, Pa., and ESPN’s No. 14-ranked 5–5 point guard Reneya Kelly (No. 11 in the Prep Girls Hoops rankings and No. 13 by ASGR) of Hoover, Ala.
Grays is the second high school star who Banghart has lured from Texas, joining star rising junior guard Deja Kelly of San Antonio, who led UNC in scoring last season and was named All-ACC.
“I don’t think anyone was surprised that I went out of state just because I was very adamant about the fact that I’m going out of state,” Grays said.
Banghart is assembling quite a talented group of tall frontcourt players. That 2023–24 UNC team will have five players at least 6–3. Toomey, Alexandra Zelaya and Teonni Key are all 6–4 and Destiny Adams is 6–3.
Grays and Key, who missed all of last season recovering from surgery to repair a torn right ACL, have already developed a bond.
“Me and Teonni clicked specifically,” Grays said. “We literally were finishing each other’s sentences. It was actually kind of scary. But it was cool; it was really funny. And then, of course, the coaches. They have been probably the coaches that I think I’ve known the longest.”
She has known UNC assistant coach Adrian Walters since around eighth grade when he was on the Alabama staff.
What would Adams tell Tar Heels fans about the talented rising senior?
“You guys definitely got a steal in her. She’s awesome,” Adams said. “For me to coach her in my first year as a head coach was really just a blessing. It’s just been really great.”
In Grays’ first year at the school last season, she led the team in points (17.8 per game), rebounds (9.4), steals (2.0) and blocks (0.6) while shooting a team-high 56% as Pearland went 28–10 record and made the Texas Region III-6A championship game.
“Watching her through our playoff run this season, I thought to myself, ‘she’s the real deal,’ ” Adams said. “I got to see her in intense moments pump her teammates up and just lead us. Twenty points, 15 rebounds, those types of things. She gets it; she puts in the work.”
Grays won a Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools 6A state title as a freshman at The Village School, a private school in the western suburbs of Houston. She collected nine points and 16 rebounds in the state championship game.
“She has the footwork. She can handle the ball well. When we do our conditioning, she runs with the guards and not the posts,” Adams said. “She just has a really good basketball IQ. To have someone like that, and just really good leadership skills where she’s able to explain to younger posts what they need to be doing, and then also talk to the guards as well, it was just really great to watch.”
If you’re sitting courtside at Carmichael Arena when Grays is on the court, you’ll be best advised to stay alert if a ball is headed in your direction.
“She has a high motor,” Adams said. “She’s gonna dive into the stands after loose balls. She’s going to get out on the floor. She’s really one of those kids that you put a battery in and she’s ready to go.”
If you ask most players Grays’ age about what they do best, many might immediately talk about the flashy, attention-getting parts of their games that might put them on “SportsCenter.” Instead, she says it’s “defense 100%.”
She leaned on being a good defender before her breakout junior season when her all-around game improved, and she says her offensive game picked up.
“Honestly, I feel like it’s one of those things that you don’t have to necessarily be good to do it,” Grays said. “When I first started, I did not have as much skill. I was just tall and lengthy, and that was it. So scoring wasn’t something that I really did because I couldn’t. I just was not that good yet. So defense was something that I could do off the gate. It was something easy that you could just do.”
Adams’ opinion is that Grays’ strength is her play around the basket.
“I think the strongest part of her game is just her ability to finish around the rim and she is relentless when it comes to rebounding,” Adams said. “She just is nonstop after the ball and is able to finish around the rim really well with contact.”
How can Grays explain a 6–3 post player who is such a good ball-handler and often leads her team’s fast break?
She began her answer by repeating the word “training” seven times. In a family with an older brother, an older sister, two younger brothers and two younger sisters, there were many chances away from organized games and practices to get better.
“Honestly, repetition,” Grays said, explaining how she developed those skills. “With such a big family, we literally play 4 on 4. Definitely pick-up games with my siblings. Just being in the gym working hard.”
With four younger siblings, driving the car is as valuable to her family as driving to the basket is to her team. “I am what feels like the family Uber,” Grays said.
Her parents, Cory and Dany, both played at Saint Louis University. Her dad is an English teacher and the girls junior varsity coach at Pearland.
“All she knows is hard work and competitiveness and that is something that her dad has preached as a coach to his team and also to his kids,” Adams said.
Grays gives her dad a lot of credit for training her and helping her improve. Grays is right-handed but a higher percentage of her blocked shots have come on the left side. She said it’s because her dad showed her techniques and he’s left-handed.
“He was very adamant about me having a good left hand,” said Grays, who can write but not shoot left-handed.
On the top of her list of areas of her game to improve between now and her arrival in Chapel Hill is the consistency and range of her jump shot.
“I just like to fight for every single bucket,” Gray said. “But definitely my shot and, of course, I’m gonna get better at ballhandling. There’s always room for improvement.”
She’ll be another talented element for a Carolina program on the rise.
Top photo by Michelle Robinnett/Hendricks Photography