For the first time in Aaron Craft’s life, school has been put on the backburner. With graduation ceremonies in the past and two months remaining until the NBA Draft, Mr. Academic All-American is spending his free time in the gym.
“It’s amazing when you’re done with school the amount of time you have on your hands,” Craft said at the NBA combine, which began Thursday and ends today. “Being able to spend multiple hours in a gym multiple times a day has helped hone and focus in on things that are helpful – lifting and shooting as much as possible and being comfortable with it.”
The biggest knock on Craft’s game is a shot that never quite became consistent during a memorable four-year career at Ohio State. His field-goal percentage fluctuated between 50 and 42 percent and his three-point percentage never rose above 38 percent. Craft’s career totals were 8.9 points per game on 45.9 percent shooting from the field and 33.3 percent from long range.
On Thursday, Craft made 55 of 102 (53.9 percent) shot attempts from NBA three-point range, college three-point range, 15 feet and the free throw line.
But the intangibles – and there are many – are why some believe Craft will be drafted on June 26 at Barclays Center. There are national defensive player of the year honors, Big Ten defensive player of the year awards and leadership that comes in 42-gallon barrels.
Craft became the Big Ten’s all-time steals leader because of quick hands, proficient defensive form and a basketball IQ verging on genius level. Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan and Bill Self are just a few of the coaches who’ve praised Craft through the years. And, of course, Thad Matta.
“You look at his career, in my mind, in the 10 years I’ve been at Ohio State, he’s going down as one of the greatest players ever to put on the scarlet and gray,” Matta said. “I’d live and die with that kid any day of the year on what he’s going to do defensively. Me telling him how to play defense would be me like me telling somebody how to build a rocket ship.”
A year ago, Craft even got the attention of Cavs all-star guard Kyrie Irving. The matchup came last summer at the Nike Point Guard Academy in New Jersey. Craft, who was almost unanimously regarded as the best on-ball defender in college basketball, didn’t shy away at taking on Irving. He picked up the All-Star Game MVP full court on several occasions and forced Irving into taking low percentage shots.
When Irving was asked about Craft’s NBA prospects, he didn’t hesitate. He lavished praise on Craft and gave him a coveted endorsement. But there are still plenty of basketball wonks and general managers that have questions galore.
They know about his defensive skills and leadership. They want to see a pure shot, though. Can Craft consistently make 3s? Can he create offense off the dribble? Is he too undersized? Craft will have an opportunity to answer those queries in person and on the basketball court.
“The biggest thing I’m trying to show is there have been improvements since the last time they saw me,” he said. “I’m more than willing to put in the work, the time and the effort needed. I’m going to enjoy the process because this is the game of basketball, and it turns out you tend to play a little better that way.
“Obviously, the biggest thing everyone has on their minds is shooting the ball. That’s the main focus, not that the other things don’t need improvement, but it was being able to knock down an open shot and feeling confident and comfortable with it. The progress that we’ve made in the time that we’ve had, I feel great about it.”
Craft indicated he’s done little in the way of changing his mechanics. Everyone seeks out the perfect shot, yet no one’s found that magic elixir – there is no Fountain of Youth. So he’s concentrated more on becoming comfortable with his form and repeating it.
“Not just catching and shooting,” Craft said, “but moving and dribbling the ball and shooting the same shot over and over and over again.”
Draft analysts remain cold on Craft’s forecast. ESPN’s Chad Ford has the point guard ranked as the 55th overall draft prospect, and DraftExpress.com and NBADraft.net don’t have Craft on their board.
He’s proven throughout his career that he’s calm in the biggest moments, even thriving when pressure overwhelms others. In a two-day workout that acts as a job interview, nerves and intimidation won’t limit Craft. Give him a ball, a hoop a basketball court and nine other players, and a switch is flipped, one where determination goes into overdrive.
If it doesn’t work out, if Craft fails to impress front office personnel at the combine, doesn’t get drafted and is released from a summer league team, he’ll reevaluate. But for now, the future is basketball, not medical school.
“I love to play this game and I want to continue to do it,” Craft said. “That’s where all our focus, time and effort has been. We can continue with school later.”
Spoken like a student of the game.