The debate will end Thursday night. Well, maybe not. One debate will end, but another will rage on – possibly for years.
Aaron Craft and the NBA. Questions were asked throughout his college career. Did his skills translate? Could he be a defense-only player and succeed? Would he get drafted? The last of those three answers will come during Thursday’s NBA Draft at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
For the past month, Craft has endured poking, prodding, cross-country trips and even a venture north of the border, all amounting to intense job interviews. Craft’s worked out at the draft combine and a multi-team combine hosted by the Clippers, and individually for the Hawks, Jazz, Suns, 76ers, Mavericks, Raptors, Grizzlies and Celtics.
The polarization of Craft comes from his defense, lack of offense and gritty personality. Craft is the prototype “love him if he’s on your team, hate him if he plays against your team” player. He pestered Big Ten fanbases for four seasons, swiping basketballs at a record pace – 337 in all – and creating points off of turnovers.
But one-dimensional players don’t always have long stays in the NBA. That is, unless the one dimension is putting the basketball into the hoop. Craft didn’t do that at a high rate in college and almost certainly won’t in the pros. Still, his defensive prowess and leadership intangibles have many scouts uttering positive remarks about Craft.
“Aaron’s excelled at pretty much everything his whole life,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said. “On the court or off the court, he’s a competitor. That’s a good way to put it. He’s a winner. His defense stands out. His ability to run a team and get guys in better spots stands out. He’s in terrific shape. He tied our high  in the conditioning drill in the end of our workout. And he could have kept going for another three minutes if he wanted to.
“We place a value on winning. I think you look throughout his career, he was also a high school quarterback. I think he won a lot there as well. It’s what he’s done his whole life. He just wins games.”
The competitive fire that burns in Craft was first lit at a young age, before coming to a full glow when he was a quarterback and point guard at Findlay Liberty Benton. He won big in football and basketball and again in basketball at Ohio State – until last season. The Buckeyes’ 10 losses were the most Craft experienced in a career stretching to grade school.
“I think I’m one of the more competitive guys out there,” he said in Phoenix. “I do whatever it takes to win – offensively or defensively. It’s also a lot of things behind the scenes that a lot people don’t see, whether it’s stuff in the offseason or things before or after practice. That’s just who I am. I want to make myself better and my team better.”
First, Craft must improve his own game before he gets the opportunity to help an entire roster. He’s not projected to be drafted, meaning he’ll be an undrafted free agent and then play in the summer league. Craft only averaged 10 points per game during one college season. His 46-percent field goal percentage and 33.3-percent three-point percentage, complete with a hitch, is the elephant in the room.
But that awkward motion has been eliminated, thanks to shooting guru Keith Veney. Distributing the ball, playing good defense and providing leadership are all qualities Craft brings to the table. Hitting open shots will be his biggest ally, though, if his shooting motion is corrected.
Craft’s elbow is now noticeably more upright when he releases the ball, whereas before it stuck out.
“It’s amazing how much work and time you can put in when you’re out of school and you have more time on your hands,” Craft said after a workout for the Jazz. “Obviously I’m not where I need to be, but I feel really comfortable with the improvement that I’ve made since the season’s been out. I’ve been shooting a lot, and I’m happy with the progress. Just got to continue to do it.”
Among those impressed was Jazz Vice President of Player Personnel Walt Perrin, who admitted he was surprised by how well Craft shot from midrange.
“He made it better than I thought he would, so he has been working on his jump shot,” Perrin said. “But he still has a ways to go. I had to remind him a couple times he had his foot on the line. I told him that’s the worst shot in NBA basketball.”
There’s been speculation that Craft might opt for medical school over carving out a career in Europe if the NBA dream doesn’t pan out. His agent, Lance Young, ended that discussion last week, saying Craft is committed to playing professional basketball regardless of the country or continent.
Helping Craft – at least he believes so – is the national exposure he experienced at Ohio State. Franchises saw what he presents to teams and his ability to deliver in tense moments. The workout process has offered similar circumstances.
“It’s just about being myself,” Craft said. “Not getting caught up in a ton of stuff about the things I don’t do well. It’s about being myself because that’s where I’m going to be the biggest asset. I come out and try to do everything I can and enjoy it.”
Enjoyment. Satisfaction. Delight. All three would describe Craft’s memorable college career with the Buckeyes. But could the three descriptors be used Thursday and years down the road when recounting Craft’s professional career?
It’s difficult to bet against him.