The Ohio State basketball team took in Monday night’s NBA preseason game in the Buckeyes’ home arena.
It’s fair to say Aaron Craft was not only watching closely, but sizing up what a year from now could be his competition.
Believe it or not, Craft is finally a senior, his remarkable run as Ohio State’s point guard now down to its final season. A nutrition major who may have medical school in his future and never got anything besides an A in any class until he got one B-plus in his second year of college, Craft has options.
His first, he hopes, will be the NBA.
“I don’t know (if I’ll play in the NBA). I hope so,” Craft said earlier this month. “My biggest focus right now is our team. We have potential to be better than last year.
“When that time comes, we’ll see. Everyone thinks about (the NBA). You come to college and play at a place like Ohio State, you do that thinking you’ll have a chance to play at the next level.”
NBA scouts have been watching Craft in big games for three seasons now and will watch him more closely this winter. The final answer might not be so much in what they see, but in how they interpret it.
What Craft is a little undersized by NBA standards at 6’2, 195. He’s a natural leader, a good passer, clearly a smart player and a great defender, good enough that plenty of long-time coaches have been calling him one of the top on-ball defenders in the country for three years now.
What he isn’t is soft. Or flappable. Or ill-prepared. He’s not a great shooter, either, by any stretch. Craft’s scoring has increased each season, from 6.9 per game as a freshman to 8.8 as a sophomore to 10 last year. He shot the ball more confidently — and more frequently from beyond the 3-point line — last season but not necessarily more consistently, finishing the season at a shade under 42 percent and 30 percent on 3-pointers.
An NBA team certainly wouldn’t be asking him to score a bunch or to be a star. The question will be, can his strengths help him carve a role and produce in that role — and is his defense good enough to slow some of the world’s best point guards?
“I think he can play in the NBA, yes,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “A lot of teams like to carry three point guards. The one thing about Aaron Craft is he wins, and there’s a huge premium in my mind for guys that do that. He’s played a lot of different roles for us. I sure hope (he gets the chance).”
Defensively, Matta said, there are “none better. He’s the best defender in college basketball and has been for the last couple of years.”
Craft has talked about learning from humbling experiences playing in summer pickup games against former Buckeye and Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley. Those games have come at a point in the summer when NCAA rules prohibit Matta from watching, but he’s talked to Craft about what he’s taken from trying to match Conley’s quickness.
“Aaron loves a good challenge,” Matta said. “He’s cerebral enough that he’s always learning, and I don’t know if there are too many better to learn from than Mike Conley.”
Respected website DraftExpress.com ranks Craft at the 55th best prospect eligible for the 2014 draft and the 10th best true point guard. A lot can change between now and June, obviously, and not all elgiible prospects enter the draft.
Six point guards went in the first round of last June’s NBA Draft. Three more went in the first 10 picks of the second round and five more were selected in the remaining picks. The Pistons selected Louisville’s Peyton Siva — who, like Craft, didn’t wow anyone with scoring numbers or measurables but is a proven leader and defender — late in the second round.
Four point guards were taken in the first round in 2012, and only three more were taken in the second.
Michigan’s Trey Burke, a Columbus native and Craft’s longtime friend, was the National Player of the Year last season and went in the top 10 of last year’s draft to the Utah Jazz. In two games against Craft last year, he shot 10-of-23 and was charged with six turnovers. There are similarly talented guards who have had greater struggles against Craft’s defense.
Craft attended the Nike-sponsored Kyrie Irving Point Guard Camp last summer and took on the camp’s namesake in some scrimmages. Before Monday night’s game between Irving’s Cleveland Cavaliers and the Philadelphia 76ers, Irving gave Craft an NBA endorsement.
“Oh yeah. I believe (he could play in the NBA),” Irving told BuckeyeSports.com. “He’s a leader, he’s a tough defender, he’s been working on his offensive game. I’m interested to see the things that heís learned from the camp and the things that he’s accomplished this summer in terms of his game and see the difference between his junior and senior year.
“He did well against the other campers. He played me tough and I know he learned a lot at the camp.”