Honing His Craft

By Chris Lauderback on February 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Despite coming to Columbus as a Scout 4-star recruit out of Liberty-Benton in Findlay, Aaron Craft seemingly got lost in the shadows of 5-star teammates Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas.

Sullinger was already a local legend and ESPNU’s #2 national recruit while Thomas enjoyed a #12 ranking. Meanwhile, the far less stat-sexy Craft first verbally committed to Tennessee before reopening his recruitment. With drama surrounding Bruce Pearl hosting Craft and others at his house combined with an increasing desire to stay closer to home, Thad Matta was the prime beneficiary as Craft signed with Ohio State.

As most fans sized up the 2010-11 campaign, a consensus seemed to be that while Sullinger would obviously star and Thomas would be a key cog, not as much was expected from Craft. Theories ranged from the fact Matta could use a rotation of William Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty to run the offense, not leaving many minutes for a true freshman point guard, to flat out concern that Craft would need significant time to develop a legit jumper and big ten worthy physical strength.

Personally, I honestly expected Craft to be a meaningful contributor this year and even predicted he would likely earn a starting spot early in conference play. It turns he didn’t make good on becoming a starter but through 22 games total, including nine in the B1G, Craft has more than proven he belongs. In fact, he’s proven to be a vital contributor to the nation’s unanimous #1 team.

Averaging 28 minutes, 6.8 points, 4.8 assists on the year, Craft used the non-conference to integrate himself into the rotation primarily with defense and now, at the midway point of the conference slate, he’s carving a dual threat niche on a team balanced in so many ways that they are the front runners to win not only the B1G regular season crown but also the national championship.

Craft’s conference season started unceremoniously with a modest two points on a clankish 2/ 5 from the stripe with a 4/2 assist/turnover night in OSU’s 85-67 win at Indiana but he bounced back with seven assists and six points including two clutch free throws with :16 left to ice a five point win at Iowa. With two roadies under his belt, Craft played a major role in a 67-64 home win over Minnesota harassing Al Nolen into a 2/10 shooting night while recording 11 points and seven dimes. Nolen had some success late but overall Craft’s defense helped keep Minnesota from establishing consistent offensive flow. At Ann Arbor a few days later, Craft scored 10 points including two more clutch free throws with 12.4 left providing the winning margin while holding Darius Morris to six points in 30 minutes before Morris got loose late.

Returing back home three days later, Craft was a beast scoring a career high 19 points on 7/11 shooting (4/6 triples) with seven assists while holding the B1G’s leading scorer at the time, Talor Battle, to 5/17 shooting with three turnovers in a 69-66 Buckeye victory. Next up, hosting Iowa, Craft went out and tied Troy Taylor’s freshman record with seven steals in 25 minutes as the Buckeyes smoked the Hawkeyes by 22.

Following up a blah offensive outing at Ilinois that saw him pester Demetri McCamey into a 2/11 shooting display, Craft put on a show as the Buckeyes stripped Purdue of their manhood posting 11 points, six boards and six assists total. The real story was his 15 minutes of work as Ohio State built a 20 point halftime lead. Craft totaled nine points, five boards and four assists and converted three of the sickest layups you’ll see this year by a white boy with rosey cheeks. Two were of the slippery, spinning variety with one of the devastating drives on none other than JaJuan Johnson.

Finally, Saturday in the quagmire against Northwestern, Craft tossed in 13 points with three assists as OSU improved to 22-0.

Pretty heady stuff from a kid few figured to have this kind of impact as a freshman. In conference play, Craft ranks 4th in steals per game (1.44), the only frosh in the top 15, 6th in assists per game (4.78) and 10th in 3FG% at 45.8%, one of two freshmen in the top 15. Overall, he leads the Buckeyes in assists and steals and ranks 2nd in 3FG%. He’s picked up both his minutes and scoring in conference play seeing 30.8 minutes of action (28 overall) and 8.9 ppg (6.8 overall).

The cherry on top of his freshman success is that we’ll almost assuredly get to watch him direct championship caliber squads at Ohio State all four years, unlike classmates Sullinger and Thomas.

So, where might he rank in team point guard history when he runs out of eligibility? It’s hard to say with so much basketball yet to be played but when surmising his ultimate ceiling I began to wonder how his numbers stack up against the gold standard for true point guards at OSU, Mike Conley Jr.

Conley’s stats are over 39 games while Craft’s are obviously through 22. No question Conley is/was the supremely better player both on paper and via the eye test - he’s a legit NBA point guard even if he hasn’t completely lived up to his lofty draft status and was a flat out sickening PG in Columbus - but Craft at least has something to aspire to. 

Freshman Season Comparison: Aaron Craft vs. Mike Conley Jr.
Conley 31.6 11.3 3.4 6.1 2.8/1 2.2 52% 30% 69%
Craft 28.0 6.8 2.7 4.8 2.1/1 1.7 49% 44% 69%

Obviously, a major difference thus far rests in Craft's increasing willingness to take, and make, perimeter jump shots. Shooting a slighty lesser percentage than Conley overall from the field, some of that likely rests in Conley's devastating ability to break ankles leading to a higher volume of high percentage shots in the paint in comparison to Craft. Meanwhile, Craft is shooting significantly better from beyond the arc and has hit 20 treys in 22 games while Conley hit 21 in 39. 

As expected, Conley issues beatdowns in the other stats though it's good to see Craft's scoring production increase as the season rolls along. Despite trailing in steals, Craft is at least in the ballpark with Conley defensively as evidenced by his success against seasoned opposing guards like Battle, McCamey, Nolen and Morris.

Again, this post isn't about Craft vs. Conley. It's just to highlight Craft's impact on the #1 team in the country as a true freshman playing beyond his years at a cerebral position and to ask for your thoughts on how you see Craft's career unfolding on its own and in comparison to other OSU PG greats like Conley (238 assists - single season record), Jamar Butler (579 career assists - 1st all time), Kelvin Ransey (516 career assists - 2nd all time) and others?

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