Behind the Surprising Evolution of Boston Celtics Shooting Guard Jordan Crawford

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Behind the Surprising Evolution of Boston Celtics Shooting Guard Jordan Crawford
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics have several young, rapidly developing players on their roster. But none spent the first third of this season shattering, then meticulously re-sculpting, their image quite like Jordan Crawford.

Once viewed as an erratic shot-taker, Crawford is now a reassuring presence at point guard. He’s also the most intriguing player Boston can dangle before the trade deadline.

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Crawford’s posting career-high numbers across the board, with an 18.9 PER, 55.9 True Shooting percentage, 2.5 Win Shares, .270 free-throw rate and .350 three-point rate, per Basketball-Reference.com. As a full-time point guard for the first time in his career, Crawford’s accepted the responsibilities that come with the role, making smarter, better plays on a nightly basis.

The improvement is apparent to most who are watching, including Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, who recently spoke about his point guard with Grantland's Zach Lowe:

I had seen him be almost unstoppable in college [at Xavier], in a game I coached against him. I knew he was a tough shot-maker. The other thing I knew was, he's not scared of the moment. I watched him play us, but also watched him play Kansas State [in the 2010 tournament] from the front row, because we were gonna play the winner. And he made huge shots. And in the NCAA tournament, in that tense of an atmosphere, that takes a lot of guts.

Others are noticing too. In a conversation with Bleacher Report Assistant NBA editor Joel Cordes, he observed that during Boston's Monday night victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Crawford committed a costly and boneheaded eight-second violation.

It's the kind of Shaqtin' a Fool stuff he was previously known for. In the past, he would have gone with a bravado stone face or laughed it off or ignored it. Or let it snowball into a dozen other mistakes.

But there was Stevens from the sideline, calmly calling to get Jordan's attention. He told him it was OK and to get the next play. The team needed him. You could see all those words clearly being said. Crawford continued to verbally berate himself out of frustration for a few moments (yet another sign that he actually cares now and understands the weight of his actions).

But he also looked back at Stevens a couple more times, cooled off and went back to the game that Boston ended up winning.

He’s the only Celtic—until Rajon Rondo makes his return—capable of creating his own shot and consistently making those around him better. When Crawford sits, Boston’s already gross offense turns into mucky slush, averaging just 94.0 points per 100 possessions. When he plays, they’re 7.8 points better.

Averaging the most minutes of his career, Crawford has one of the league’s 20 best assist rates, assisting on 30.0 percent of all his team’s made field goals when on the court.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

According to SportVU, he’s also averaging 10.8 assist opportunities per game (an assist opportunity is a pass to a teammate in which a shot is attempted and would be an assist if made), better than Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker and under one assist opportunity per game less than Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.

It’s this playmaking ability that should have other teams interested in a trade. But his penchant for hitting difficult shots (a somewhat undervalued skill in today’s efficiency-driven league) remains his calling card.

Crawford is averaging 7.6 pull-up field-goal attempts per game and making 43.5 percent of them. For comparison’s sake, Kevin Durant, the best scorer in the world, is averaging 7.5 pull-up field-goal attempts per game and making 43 percent of them.

Let me write that again just in case you were sipping coffee or someone tapped you on the shoulder: Crawford is more accurate off the bounce than Durant right now. This is reality.

He’s also been effective down the stretch. In the last five minutes of games where the point margin is five or less, Crawford’s shooting 63.6 percent in 11 such instances so far this season.

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Crawford’s overall improvement on offense is wonderful. But if the 25-year-old is playing so great and improving by the week, why would the Celtics want to deal him?

For starters, his contract situation. Crawford is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, meaning whichever team has him possesses the right to match any offer sheet presented by another team.

It’s unlikely the Celtics—a rebuilding team that needs to be super careful with how they allocate multi-year contracts—keep Crawford if he can’t be had on a below-market deal. So from that perspective, they risk losing him for nothing.

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acquired him at last year’s deadline for nothing: Jason Collins and Leandro Barbosa—two veterans who are no longer in the NBA. And flipping Crawford for a younger player or modest draft pick, when his value is far and away the highest it’ll ever be, is an opportunity too good to pass up.

Unless Crawford is willing to take a major pay cut, which is certainly not happening, he doesn’t have a future in Boston. Rondo will be the point guard moving forward, and rightfully so. He's one of the game's brightest stars, the face of the franchise and only two years older than Crawford.

The team also has less expensive options already in place at backup point guard (Phil Pressey) and will prioritize the re-signing of Avery Bradley—another restricted free agent in the backcourt who is younger and better—this summer.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Crawford’s value around the league was once strictly tied to his ability to score in (very) limited streaks. He could come off the bench, create his own shot, score some points and take a seat as soon as his spark went damp. He was a poor man’s Jamal Crawford or J.R. Smith.

His role is now larger and brighter. Crawford has shown he can actually run an offense and play basketball with intelligence for extended minutes. He has value as a spot starter for some team desperately looking to stay in the playoff race with a temporary upgrade at point guard. (Think about the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks.)

How about a playoff team trying to rent out some legitimate backcourt depth? (The Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors or Detroit Pistons.)

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Apart from nightly highlights and the type of consistent play that's kept them afloat during the season's first 26 games, Crawford's emergence has given the Celtics unexpected flexibility before the trade deadline.

As a result, one of the league's most active teams will be even more aggressive. And the chance of Crawford finishing the season in a green jersey are getting smaller by the day.

 

All statistics used in this article are accurate as of Dec. 17.

Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.

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