Jae Crowder has a championship mentality. He knows what it takes to win. The Phoenix Suns forward is making his second consecutive NBA Finals appearance, having lost last season to the Los Angeles Lakers as a member of the Miami Heat in the Disney Bubble Finals.
His championship experience goes beyond just last season, however. Once upon a junior college time, Jae Crowder played for South Georgia Technical College in Americus, Georgia. Yeah, that’s not the Georgia Tech you know; the Jets currently have 2,326 students listed on their Wikipedia page.
Crowder, a native of Villa Rica, Georgia, was a multiple-sport high school athlete (and a damn good QB) who was not highly recruited. He took his talents to South Georgia Tech and was named the Georgia Junior College Athletic Association Player of the Year for his efforts during his freshman season.
It wasn’t all flowers and glory at South Georgia Tech, however. Crowder had exposure to Division I head coaches while at the NJCAA Tournament and they were telling him to be wary.
“[University of West Virginia head coach] Bob Huggins came up to me at practice and said ‘you should get out of there. If you want to play Division I basketball, you need to leave and give yourself a chance,’” Crowder said. “That’s when me and my dad started searching around and really getting the facts on what the school is.”
You see, South Georgia Tech was not an accredited institution. None of Crowder’s classes could transfer when it came time to make the next jump in his academic career. So Jae got out of there.
He transferred the following season to Howard College, another JUCO school, in Big Spring, Texas. But he was already behind, seeing as his freshman year technically didn’t count. “You’re doubling everything in your schedule, and on top of that you’re playing basketball,” Jae recalled.
And play basketball he did. Crowder was a beast for the Hawks as he averaged 18.9 points, 9 rebounds, and 2.4 assists that season. He led his team to the NJCAA National Championship game versus Three Rivers Community College out of Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
In an epic affair, the Hawks erased a 10-point deficit to force overtime, ultimately winning 85-50 to clinch the college’s first ever national championship. Crowder had 27 points and 15 rebounds in the game.
“We won the national championship that year,” Jae remembered, “But it was the toughest thing I ever had to do.”
Fast forward to the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Crowder is no longer asked to be the primary scoring force on a JUCO team, but the enforcer who mentors the young men around him.
“I was here last year and my mind is already thinking about four more,” Jae said after winning the Western Conference Finals. “I know it’s hard to get back to the Finals and be the last two teams standing. I’m going to embrace this and then tomorrow I’m going to switch my mindset to four more.”
When you add up all of the NBA Finals appearances on the Phoenix Suns roster, you come up with the following total: 6 games played. Only Crowder has played the final series of the season.
He has excelled in the playoffs and his offensive performance is generally a good barometer for the Suns’ success. When you look at his splits in wins and losses for Phoenix during this postseason run, it is clear that he is an x-factor:
- Wins: 11.4 points, 41.3 3PT%, 5.3 rebounds, +/-: +11.1
- Losses: 7.5 points, 21.7 2PT%, 4.8 rebounds, +/-: -7.0
You know it’s going to be a good day when Jae lines up a three-ball and knocks it down. Given his role in the offense, he sees plenty of open shots. 65.4% of his shots this postseason have been catch-and-shoot three-pointers and he is shooting 39.1% on those attempts.
The Suns like to start with the high pick-and-roll and see what mismatches develop. As the play continues and the defense collapses, if Paul or Ayton are properly covered, Crowder is the beneficiary.
The Suns are 8-1 in games in which Crowder makes 3+ three-pointers.
In the series clincher for the Suns, Crowder scored 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting, including 5-of-9 from deep. His scoring kept his defenders honest, which allowed other members of the team to flourish. If you can’t cheat on Booker, Paul, or Ayton, then they can do work.
In wins during the playoffs, Jae Crowder is posting a 119.7 offensive rating, and a 103.3 defensive rating. That is a net rating of +16.4. In losses those numbers flip, as he posts a 101.3 offensive rating and a 111.6 defensive rating — a net rating of -10.3. If your x-factor performs well, everything should fall into place, and it has for the Suns.
Jae has come a long way in his basketball career. The lights are much brighter than those at Dorothy Garrett Coliseum in Big Springs, Texas. But his dedication to his craft remains. He is still a player willing to put the work in.
“I’m chasing it. That’s my motivation. That’s what I’ve been preaching to the guys,” Crowder said. “I’m chasing that feeling again. I’m chasing the moment”.
If the Suns win four more games, he’ll feel it again, only amplified on the global level.