Crowder’s new squad had just been thoroughly outhustled during an ugly loss to the Charlotte Hornets in the dog days of the regular season, and the 25-year-old small forward did not hold back when assessing the team’s issues.
“Guys as NBA players should always come here ready to play hard,” Crowder said of Boston’s play. “It’s not on the coaches. It’s not on anybody. It’s on us as players. And I think that’s first and foremost for us. We just have to hold ourselves accountable.”
Those sharp words were the first seeds of leadership planted by Crowder in his new home on a roster that was mired with uncertainty in the midst of a rebuild.
Nearly one year later, Crowder has helped stabilize the franchise with his leadership, while also developing into a promising building block for an Eastern Conference squad on the rise.
Work Ethic Draws Comparison to Celtics Legend
Few people have been mentioned in the same sentence as Kevin Garnett when it comes to work ethic. The Hall of Fame-caliber forward used that drive to change the culture of the Celtics franchise upon arriving in Boston in 2007, setting an example for everyone with his passion and attention to detail over the course of the Big Three era.
Last week, head coach Brad Stevens referred to those characteristics while speaking about Crowder’s habits on the practice court.
“He doesn’t waste time on things he probably won’t utilize a lot, and that’s a really good thing for a young player to learn,” Stevens said. “I never lived it with Garnett, but that was always Garnett’s reputation. The guy didn’t waste time when he was on the court. It didn’t mean he worked for three hours, it means he did the right thing for 20-25 minutes.”
Crowder was flattered when the similarity was brought up to him, but he remained realistic about the association.
"That's a guy I look up to," he said about the potential link to Garnett. "And I heard a lot of stories about him, and that's what I try to mold myself into being. I try to become a guy like him and approach practices like games.
"That's an honor him for to say that, but I'm far from that. That's a goal of mine to become a guy like him. My approach is to try to become the most vocal leader at practice and when the cameras and stuff aren't around."
Building Respect Amid A Balanced Roster
The Celtics, as currently composed, are an ensemble cast of characters with no true star. This construction has opened the door for a role player like Crowder to emerge as a motivator in a crowded locker room.
One of the best ways a player can command the respect of a locker room with no true alpha dog is by backing up his rhetoric with stellar play on the court. The Celtics have a variety of players who do that well in specific realms of the game, but few have shown they can bring it on both ends regularly.
For instance, Isaiah Thomas is the Celtics’ offensive sparkplug, thanks to his team-leading 20.8 points-per-game average. However, his size (5'9") often makes him a liability on the defensive end.
Marcus Smart has been a defensive bulldog ever since Boston selected him No. 6 overall in the 2014 NBA draft, but his offensive shortcomings (36 percent career shooter) still limit his value.
Meanwhile, in his year-plus with the Celtics, Crowder has quietly transformed into one of Stevens’ most reliable weapons on both ends of the floor.
After serving as a steady bench player during his first year in Boston, the 2012 second-round pick earned the starting small forward job over Evan Turner in training camp and hasn’t looked back since.
Defense has never been an issue for the Marquette product, who has used his size (6'6") and strength (235 lbs) to slow down opposing wings on a nightly basis, piling up 1.8 steals per game. Crowder’s bulk has also given Stevens the option of going small with his lineups, since the wing can use his size and speed to guard many power forwards effectively as well.
While the fifth-year forward gets the most attention for his ability to hold his own defensively against star scorers such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, he has shown the greatest improvement during his Celtics tenure on the offensive end.
Over the first two months of this season, Crowder has posted career highs in nearly every offensive category, including field-goal percentage (44.2 percent), three-point percentage (34.9 percent) and points per game (13.9).
“I’m just being aggressive, believing in my work,” Crowder said of his offensive growth. “My teammates believe in me. I feel like I’m seeing the game at a different side than I’ve ever saw it before at this level. It’s a work in progress for me, and I watch a lot of film and try to get better with every game.”
“I’ve seen him develop from his days in Dallas,” Bryant said Wednesday. “There was one night where we got in late to Dallas and I went to the practice facility to get some shots up. And who was in there? He was in there. He was in there working out, he was in there working on his game. When I see that, I have nothing but respect for him.”
A Vocal Part of the Future
While no player can ever be deemed untouchable when Danny Ainge is a team’s general manager, Crowder established plenty of long-term security for himself by signing a five-year, $35 million contract with Boston in the summer of 2015.
With Crowder’s gains in play, the deal already looks like a serious bargain for the Celtics as they attempt to keep accumulating useful rotation pieces while retaining valuable salary-cap space open to acquire a potential star via trade or free agency.
With a vote of confidence via the lengthy contract from the front office, Crowder hasn’t been afraid to speak up regularly in the locker room when issues arise. Two weeks ago in mid-December, in the midst of a three-game losing streak, he declared the Celtics had lost their “swagger” and were being too dependent on the coaching staff. The team responded with a four-game winning streak.
The versatile forward may not have the star potential the team is still seeking, but Crowder’s teammates are already taking note of his leadership and the team’s success (49-42 overall record) since he joined the franchise.
“He’s elevating his game to another level, and it’s at the right time of the season that we need,” Smart said earlier this week. “We need someone else out there who can score the ball and put pressure on the defense. And then he comes down on the defensive end and attacks guys. He messes things up for [opposing] offenses. He’s just a big key for this team. He knows it, we know it and we appreciate everything he does.”
As Ainge continues to finish the complex Celtics rebuilding puzzle in the next couple seasons, Crowder seems to be one valuable piece who will be setting the tone for the franchise for years to come.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.