Jae Crowder, one of NBA’s most underrated players, helping Celtics move on

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Jared Sullinger arrived early to the arena and bumped into Vander Blue.

Sullinger’s Ohio State and Blue’s Marquette teams, on opposite sides of the region, were opening the 2011 NCAA tournament in Cleveland.

As the two friends exchanged pleasantries, Blue’s teammate – Jae Crowder – intervened. He apparently didn’t want Blue making nice with a potential later-round foe. Crowder got upset, and as Sullinger put it, “We almost got into a little scuffle.”

“From there on, I knew I could always ride with Jae,” Sullinger said, “because he’s going to fight for you.”

Nearly four years later, Sullinger’s Celtics acquired Crowder in the Rajon Rondo trade.

“I was excited,” Sullinger said. “I knew we got somebody that just knows one way, one way how to play – and that’s play hard every night.”

Crowder has emerged as more than just a hustle player in Boston. His two-way excellence quietly puts him in a special class. He’s one of just nine players with a Real Plus-Minus of at least two on both ends of the floor:

Player Offensive RPM Defensive RPM
LeBron James 6.09 2.78
Kawhi Leonard 4.32 4.36
Draymond Green 3.59 5.09
Kyle Lowry 5.21 2.00
DeMarcus Cousins 2.64 3.51
Paul Millsap 3.59 2.26
Chris Bosh 2.84 2.45
Kevin Love 3.25 2.00
Jae Crowder 2.01 2.18

Those other eight are drawing serious All-Star consideration.

Even Crowder’s traditional stats suggest he warrants a higher profile.

Just four other players so young average as many points (14.5), rebounds (5.3) and assists (1.9) per game as Crowder: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Will Barton, Nikola Vucevic and DeMarcus Cousins. Also consider Crowder’s 1.8 steals game, and just five other players meet the marks at all: Stephen Curry,

Paul George,Kawhi Leonard,Paul Millsap and Russell Westbrook.

Crowder just finds ways to help Boston win – though that wasn’t always the case.

The Celtics lost their first four games with Crowder and began his tenure 3-12. He could tell the team missed Rondo.

“It was weird,” Crowder said. “Practices was like kind of weird. Guys wasn’t really taking it serious. You could tell he was the leader. The team had no leadership at that time. And we were losing. There was just a lot of down people, a lot of frustration.”

Crowder was frustrated, too. Fed up, he asked Boston coach Brad Stevens, “Are we trying to lose?”

The Celtics appeared to be tanking. Crowder looked like little more than a throw-in in the Rondo deal, which netted a first-round pick and Brandan Wright (who was later flipped for another first-rounder). Boston also traded Jeff Green for yet another first-rounder.

The self-made Crowder had taken too hard a path to the NBA to passively accept losing.

He enrolled at South Georgia Tech out of high school, playing for a school he’d learn was unaccredited. “The coach lied to me to get me to sign there,” Crowder said. Once he realized that – on a tip from Bob Huggins – Crowder transferred to Howard College in Texas. Another transfer landed him at Marquette, where his NBA dream finally felt realistic. He was drafted in the second round in 2012 and immediately cracked the Mavericks’ rotation. But his playing time decreased each of his three seasons in Dallas.

So, while Crowder was excited to play more in Boston, he disliked the team’s direction.

Stevens – who admits he didn’t know much about Crowder at the time of the trade – assured him he’d never coach a team to lose. The coach was also becoming impressed by Crowder, from his workout habits to his surprising versatility.

The Celtics traded for Isaiah Thomas, who sparked a stagnant offense, and surged into the playoffs. Though Thomas’ scoring earns him attention and makes him Boston’s most likely All-Star, Crowder’s value on both sides of the floor is immense. So is his intensity.

“We feed off of him,” Sullinger said.

During the Celtics’ first-round series against the Cavaliers last spring, Crowder – who frequently guarded LeBron James – declared, “Nobody on their team is intimidating.” Cleveland swept the series, but Crowder proved his toughness in the process.

He also showed a skill set that could help Boston bridge eras.

Rondo was the last remaining player from the Celtics’ 2008 championship team. Crowder’s arrival quite literally signaled a changing of the guard.

In recent years, the Celtics have pushed to land a star. Until they get one, and once they do, Crowder is key.

It’s not just that he’s good offensively and defensively. It’s that he’s good inside and out offensively and defensively.

He shoots 65% at the rim and 35% on 3-pointers. The 6-foot-6 Crowder comfortably covers shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards – and switching him onto centers and point guards is hardly problematic.

That’s a versatility built for the playoffs, when opponents will hammer at any deficiency. Crowder can’t be exposed. He just need the 22-20 Celtics, who are eighth in the Eastern Conference, to reach the postseason.

So far, he’s doing his part.

I’m usually first in line to scoff at Draymond Green comparisons. Green’s combination skills is incredibly rare. Not every undersized forward can just be him.

But Crowder shares similarities. He’s strong and tenacious enough to defend bigger players in the post, even if his height lends itself to perimeter defense (where he also performs well). He shoots well enough to spread the floor. Crowder doesn’t pass nearly as well as Green, but he keeps the ball moving.

Looking for a poor man’s Green? It’s Crowder – and that’s a compliment I wouldn’t bestow on anyone else in the league.

Crowder also has the capability to complement a high-usage star should Boston ever nab one.

Crowder is excellent off the ball – cutting, working off screens, spotting up. It’d help if he shot better from the corners, but his defense, rebounding and hustle more than make up for that shortcoming.

Best of all for the Celtics, they have Crowder locked up to a five-year, $35 million contract he signed last offseason. That deal looked like a steal the moment it was signed, and it’ll look even better as the salary cap skyrockets.

Crowder said he received interest from “four other Eastern Conference teams and Boston and one West Coast team.” One team, he said, made a higher-paying offer than the Celtics. He also figures – correctly, I believe – he could’ve gotten even more lucrative offers simply by waiting.

But Crowder agreed to terms with Boston on the second day of free agency. He’s even talking already about signing an extension in three years, though unless the Celtics also renegotiate his deal – why would they? – the maximum possible extension would still leave him a huge bargain.

“I didn’t know if, the saying, the grass is greener on the other side at that time,” Crowder said. “So, I just wanted to stick with what I knew, and what I knew is trying to make Boston my home.”

The Celtics have to be thrilled he chose their green.

If you’re a Comcast subscriber in Boston, you can stream tonight’s Celtics-Raptors game here.