After going undrafted a month ago, Aaron Craft's chances of making an NBA roster seemed improbable, but his stint with the Golden State Warriors' summer league team completely reversed that notion.
There's no guarantee he will appear at Warriors' training camp in the fall, but they would be wise to extend that invite. Craft has already cleared one of the biggest hurdles for any undrafted player by winning over Golden State's coaching staff. Even before the Warriors hired him, former TNT and CBS basketball analyst Steve Kerr was a Craft admirer:
What position does Aaron Craft play, you ask? 'Winner.'
— Steve Kerr (@SteveKerr) January 8, 2014
Perhaps it was a calculated move by Craft's agent, Lance Young, to push for a spot on the Warriors' summer league team. Since Craft arrived, Kerr has been consistent and, at times, borderline outlandish with his praise for the former Buckeye point guard:
Kerr on Craft: "People have their opinions of him in terms of he doesn't shoot it well enough, he doesn't do this...He competes & he wins."
— Diamond Leung (@diamond83) July 15, 2014
Q: "How about Aaron (Craft's) hustle tonight?" Steve Kerr: "How about Aaron's hustle every day and every night?"
— Diamond Leung (@diamond83) July 15, 2014
Usually, terms such as "winner," "grit" and "hustle" are reserved for overachieving, white players on the football field. People scoff when those adjectives are used by broadcasters and journalists, but, when it's coming from an NBA head coach, that's when Craft can truly take pride in those words. Wide-scale criticism of Craft largely stems from the hyperbole, but he brushes it aside.
"There was a lot of stuff, a lot of ideas thrown out there – I’m white, I’m short, other people can do what I do. Things like that," Craft told ESPN.com. "For me, if anything, it could have taken some pressure off my teammates. I felt comfortable handling it and dealing with it."
Criticism was warranted due to the lack of improvement with his jump-shot mechanics. In his freshman season at Ohio State, Craft hit 38 percent of his three-point attempts. By the end of his senior season, that dipped below 31 percent. The lack of floor spacing by the rest of his team didn't help, but neither did Craft's constant attempts to overhaul his jumper.
Since graduation, Craft has continued to work on those flaws.
"The biggest thing I’m trying to show is there have been improvements since the last time they saw me," he told our Kyle Rowland, before the NBA Draft combine. "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."
With the Warriors, Craft hit three of his nine long-range attempts. More importantly, he's learning from a guy who is the most efficient three-point shooter in NBA history. As with many first-year head coaches, Kerr is leading the summer league squad and implementing his system with some of the team's young players.
Golden State did not have a pick in this year's draft, so the only players on their roster who also competed in the summer league were Festus Ezeli, Ognjen Kuzmic and Nemanja Nedovic. Of that group, Nedovic is the only point guard. So, as far as experience within Kerr's system, Craft is on equal footing with him.
Beyond Nedovic, Stephen Curry and the newly-signed Shaun Livingston are the point guards on their roster. Obviously, Craft isn't competing with Curry – the best pure shooter in the NBA – or the 6-foot-7-inch Livingston, who played 26 minutes per game for the Brooklyn Nets last season. Nedovic's spot, however, is tenuous.
As the Mercury News' Tim Kawakami wrote, the Warriors have not been impressed by Nedovic and will be forced to make a decision on his $1.15 million option for the 2015-16 season by the beginning of this year. With Klay Thompson's new deal, the team potentially exercising options on Ezeli and Harrison Barnes, plus $56.1 million committed to five other players, Golden State has limited financial flexibility. If they waive Nedovic and sign Craft, they could save approximately $500,000. Craft's potential contract wouldn't be fully guaranteed, so they could save even more.
Finances aren't the only reasons why Craft would be preferable to Nedovic:
A small sample size here, but Craft's 80.5 defensive rating – an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions – and his 5.57 steal percentage – the amount of opponent possessions that ended in a steal while he was on the floor – were among the 10 best in the Las Vegas summer league. As a team, the Warriors' plus-minus with Craft on the floor was plus-34, and negative-31 with him on the bench.
He is still turnover prone, but Craft wouldn't be that much of a downgrade from Nedovic in that area. According to Kawakami, "NBA talent evaluators looked at Nedovic this summer and still don’t see any single stand-out facet in his game and still see a lot of horrible ones." That's the worst endorsement you can possibly get while trying to prove your worth to an NBA team.
Ideally, neither Craft nor Nedovic would be a factor with this year's Warriors. If that's the case, they can shed the hassle of dealing with Nedovic, and let Craft develop with the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State's D-League squad. As Craft told ESPN, his approach to the game separates him from players in a similar position. That's something even an accomplished star, such as Curry, can learn from Craft.
"If I’m going to make it," Craft said, "I have to be better shape than pretty much any guy on the floor."