The Suns’ newest free agent acquisition, Jae Crowder, is officially participating in practices with his new team after a “personal problem” held up his arrival in the Valley. Asked directly if his delay was related to being sick or testing positive for COVID-19, Crowder said no.
“I had some stuff to handle and I’m thankful for my coaching staff and the whole organization for working with me with that and being patient with that,” Crowder said. “Now that it’s behind me, I’m looking forward to moving forward.”
Of course this personal matter is not the only thing that complicates the start of the 2020-21 season for Crowder. The veteran forward was just in the NBA Finals less than two months ago, had to go through a busy free agency period (in which he said 14 NBA teams contacted his reps), relocate to a new city, and prepare physically for another long season — all during a worsening pandemic.
“The turnaround is the quickest I’ve ever been a part of in my eight years being a professional,” Crowder said. “Mentally I’ve got to get back engaged and then obviously stepping into the arena, everything starts to click.”
Crowder would be forgiven for coming into his first practices stressed out, or being withholding when talking with local media for the first time. That’s not his nature, though.
Much like he will be with this Suns squad, Crowder was thoughtful, humble and brutally honest during his 20-plus minute introductory media availability on Wednesday. After squaring away the reason for his late arrival, Crowder got to business discussing the role he hopes to play on this team and in the locker room in 2021.
“Obviously I wanted a little bit more of a break,” Crowder said, but highlighted how the loss to the Lakers in the Finals motivated him during the shortened offseason to keep working.
Already, younger Suns players are picking Crowder’s brain on his recent postseason run. That’s a conversation Crowder hopes will continue over the course of the whole season, but wants to set the precedent to “make the days count” right away.
One player in specific, though, stuck out when Crowder was narrowing down his options in free agency: Devin Booker.
Crowder believes it’s Booker’s time to make a playoff run and show the league what he’s made of in big-time games.
“I felt like Devin is ready for real pressure,” Crowder said. “That’s playoff basketball. He’s definitely put the work in to be respected in this league and I have the utmost respect for him.
“I just know Devin is ready for some real basketball, some pressure basketball, and I just want to do my part to help him achieve that.”
The way he’ll do that is to space the floor and commit on defense, two things he’s done over the entirety of his NBA career and just proved at the highest level with Miami. When they explored free agent options this summer, James Jones and Monty Williams quickly identified Crowder as a player who was willing to sacrifice to win and was capable of affecting the game without a gameplan built around him.
“Jae is a guy ... not many teams call plays for him but he finds a way to be productive,” Williams told reporters on Wednesday. “Defensively he’s about as versatile as they come.”
As I wrote last week, Crowder stepped up on offense with the Heat by becoming a more consistent spot-up three-point shooter. While Williams indicated he’s willing to reposition Crowder within the offense to make him comfortable and help him keep his rhythm, the coach also said it in large part falls on Booker and Chris Paul to set Crowder up for open shots.
Williams is also optimistic Crowder can be a positive cog in the 0.5-second offense he installed with the Suns last season.
“If we had a younger guard ... then it would be a bit more on me to figure it out,” Williams said. “But I don’t want to absolve myself from the situation, I’m going to figure out ways to put him in our offense.
“The thing I like about Jae is he’s not just a gunner. If somebody’s open he’ll get them the ball and make the right play. That was really intriguing to James and myself, because in our offense, it’s a ‘we score’ mentality, we’re gonna move the ball and we really don’t care who scores so you have to have willing passers to play that way.”
When Crowder was asked about his role, he pivoted away from the specifics of the basketball floor — by now we know what he’ll do there — and focused on accountability.
Crowder wants to hold himself and his teammates accountable on a daily basis.
“I can’t really tell a younger guy to do this or do that if I’m not doing it,” Crowder said.
Being a quarterback in high school helped Crowder develop an awareness of all his teammates, he said, and a desire to hold them to a high standard.
The Suns have other players who can shoot and defend, and there were others on the market who could have potentially filled Crowder’s positional role in Phoenix. What the Suns hope they will get from Crowder is selflessness, leadership, and relentless effort.