Crowder, Johnson-Odom aim to silence critics
By JOAN NIESEN
MINNEAPOLIS – Look among the names of players projected as lottery picks, and theirs are nowhere to be found. Check the list of potential first-round selections, and still, no luck.
Rewind four years, then. Neither name appears among the top recruits of 2008, nowhere hidden between Jrue Holiday and Draymond Green. That's because in 2008, Jae Crowder was a chubby athlete with little sense what sport he wanted to play, on his way to South Georgia Technical College. In 2008, Darius Johnson-Odom was declared ineligible, on his way to prep school and then Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, little further than his future teammate on the path to becoming a star Big East player.
But here they are, making the circuit of pre-draft workouts just two years after they became teammates on a Marquette squad that was unranked to start the 2010-11 season. Here they are, two NCAA tournament berths and one Sweet 16 later. Combined, they've amassed two first-team All-Big East selections and one Big East Player of the Year Award. They led Marquette to a No. 10 ranking at the end of their senior year, and though the team fell to Florida to end its season, it's hard to find any disappointment in what Crowder and Johnson-Odom accomplished.
Don't tell these two likely second-round picks that they've exceeded expectations, though. Don't even suggest it. Don't for one second think that Crowder feels any less like he belongs after playing at two community colleges before Marquette. Don't just assume that Johnson-Odom reads draft analysis and believes that he and his friend still have to prove themselves.
Crowder, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound forward, capped off a senior season in which he averaged 17.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game with that coveted Big East Player of the Year award, beating out players like Syracuse's Fab Melo and Connecticut's Jeremy Lamb. In fact, Crowder won the award over five players who are widely expected to be drafted before he is.
Johnson-Odom, a guard, was second in the conference in scoring, averaging 18.3 points per game, and his 2.3 three-pointers per game were good for fourth-best. So yes, every former Big East player in the draft except West Virginia's Kevin Jones was a less prolific scorer than he, yet Johnson-Odom will be lucky to be among the first five players drafted out of the conference.
So no, these Marquette stars don't quite understand what it means to be highly touted.
"I don't know what highly touted means at Marquette, for us," Johnson-Odom said. "We're just going to play. If you can't play as hard as we can, then I don't know what to tell you."
Crowder and Johnson-Odom reunited in Minneapolis last Thursday, the evening after Crowder elected to sit out of the Timberwolves' workouts due to an ankle problem. It's nothing serious, he said, just a precaution before the NBA draft combine begins Thursday in Chicago. Johnson-Odom's session was the day after his teammate's, and the two hung out the night before until Johnson-Odom was forced to tell Crowder that he had to go to bed and needed to get some sleep before his workout. The guard then woke up the next morning to a good luck text message from none other than Crowder.
When they get to see each other, it's good company in a whirlwind process. But even when they're not working out in the same city, Crowder and Johnson-Odom are in this together. They're linked by their backgrounds, by exceeding expectations and winning awards without ever really becoming household names. But the similarities and relationships aren't imposed. They're real, and Johnson-Odom credits Marquette and coach Buzz Williams' system for their bond.
Right now, the two are in a limbo between being teammates and becoming opponents, but that hasn't seemed to dawn on either player. Instead, they talk each other up, Crowder touting Johnson-Odom and vice versa. They're each other's source of confidence – Crowder admits that having to prove himself to scouts can be stressful, and Johnson-Odom insists that no one has to prove anything. They're points and counterpoints, friends and advocates.
And despite everything the two achieved during the season, they might just need those advocates. Crowder, though he's built much like surprise Denver Nuggets rookie sensation Kenneth Faried and was one of the most across-the-board talented players in the NCAA last season, is projected as a mid-second round pick. Johnson-Odom, too, presents doubts. He's a 6-foot-2 shooting guard who's built like a point guard, and though he's adamant he'll play whichever position teams want, the question will likely haunt him past draft day.
For now, Crowder and Johnson-Odom are relying on their Big East resumes. They're relying on the tenacity that Marquette fostered in them, the recognition they earned in their two seasons apiece in the Big East. Each is relying on the chance he got against the odds – to play college basketball at a major program – to help him earn his shot at the next level.
"Playing in the Big East at that high of a level, it's pretty amazing, night in and night out," Crowder said. "It prepares you for a lot of different things. I think it's times like this it'll most definitely prepare you for … You go in with a good mind. You go in not being nervous, and stuff like that. It's a good thing, playing in the Big East, for sure."
Look at Scoop Jardine, a last-minute addition to the list of players working out in Minneapolis. He played at Syracuse, earning All-Big East second-team honors his senior year. He's not likely to be drafted, but the name recognition he gained from his program and conference earned him a fill-in spot when other players cancelled at the Timberwolves' workouts. Jardine played against the Marquette duo for the past two years, and he had only positive things to say about them.
"He's one of the best players in the country," Jardine said of Crowder. "He got Big East Player of the Year. When you get that in a tough league like that, it speaks a lot of you as a player. I think he was well deserved of it."
Jardine went on to tout Crowder's toughness and nastiness, praise similar to Johnson-Odom's, who said his teammate is a hard worker. But Crowder's skill set – and Johnson-Odom's, for that matter – goes beyond talent. Both are driven by the desire to improve, to claw and fight for what they know they're capable of. It's what got them to Marquette, and it's likely to be the key to success for both in the NBA.
When Williams recruited Crowder to Marquette, he attended just one of his games at Howard College. That night, the forward fouled out after playing only nine minutes and scoring three points, yet Williams was impressed. He saw Crowder's personality, his leadership skills, and that was enough to earn him a spot on the Golden Eagles. It was a similar recruiting process for Johnson-Odom, based more on reputation and statistics than in-person scouting.
Just those little snippets of information were enough for Marquette to wager on two untested junior college players. Now, two years later, the real recruiting process has begun, and this time, a lot more people are watching.
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