For the most part, role players don’t decide whether or not a team is successful at the highest level. The NBA is a star-driven league, and when a team wins or loses, the credit or blame is primarily placed on the star players, followed by the head coach. Valuable role players can collectively decide a playoff series, or swing a crucial game or two, but over the course of an 82 game regular season, the stars drive the franchise both on and off the court.
However, that doesn’t stop fans from falling in love with certain role players, whether it be for their personality, the style of play, or a combination of the two. That also doesn’t stop role players from being crucial pieces for teams that have a need for their skill set, with the perfect example being the Denver Nuggets and Torrey Craig.
It’s more than likely that a few of you reading this have never heard of Craig, or have no idea what he looks like or how he plays. And that’s understandable! Craig saw his first minutes of NBA action last season on a two-way contract with Denver, and they got the most out of that deal, playing him 629 minutes across 39 games.
Craig made his way on the floor as a result of his energy and effort on the defensive end. At 6’6” Craig is able to guard multiple positions and will have to do so for Denver this season after the team traded away Wilson Chandler, one of the more competent defenders on the roster. After depleting their wing depth with that Chandler trade (and subsequent move to put Will Barton in the starting lineup), Craig will be in line for a consistent bench role throughout the season. It’s clear that the Nuggets believe in Craig’s ability to contribute, giving him a two year, $4 million deal that will likely cover the rest of his prime (Craig turns 28 in December).
Let’s take a closer look at how Craig can contribute on both ends of the floor for a Nuggets team desperate to return to the playoffs.
A limited offensive impact
You know what you’re getting when Torrey Craig is on the court, and it’s not an impressive ability to handle the ball or shoot. Craig is a very limited offensive player, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have an impact when on the floor. Through effective cuts and proper positioning, Craig can stay on the floor to provide energy and defense while not completely stagnating the offense.
While Craig shot just 29.3 percent from beyond the arc last season (on just 1.5 attempts per game), he was much more effective from the corners, hitting 38.1 percent of such shots, which made up a little more than 36 percent of his overall 3-point attempts. With the addition of Isaiah Thomas, plus effective staggering of the starters (i.e. playing one of Barton/Harris/Jokic with the bench units), Craig should be able to position himself more in the corners and feed off the quality looks he will receive as a result of IT and others commanding more attention from defenses. The best way to maximize Craig’s offensive contributions is putting him in a position to succeed, which is primarily in the corners.
Another benefit of stationing Craig in the corners is his instincts and awareness to cut to the rim at the right time. Watch how Craig realizes his defender(s) is ball-watching, giving him an easy cut to the rim to bail out Trey Lyles:
Here’s another example of Craig capitalizing on little-to-no defensive attention, leading to a direct path to the rim and an impressive finish (Craig shot 62 percent from within three feet of the rim last season, speaking to his athletic ability to alter layups and dunks in the air).
Additionally, Craig has good court awareness when looking for quality shots, allowing him to naturally adjust to the Nuggets free-flowing offense. Just watch how he re-positions himself as a Gary Harris-Nikola Jokic pick-and-roll unwinds, leading to Harris finding a wide-open Craig on the wing, a shot NBA players won’t miss very often:
In the end, Craig will never be a truly positive offensive player. He lacks the ball-handling and consistent shooting to become more than a player that feeds off of his teammates to get quality looks. And that’s totally fine! In Denver, he will always be playing alongside quality offensive options, whether it is Thomas, Barton/Harris, Murray, Jokic, etc. If Craig continues to cut effectively and improve his shooting a bit, he will fit in nicely as a background piece in the team’s offense.
Bringing energy and effort to the defense
Analyzing Craig’s defensive impact is tough, especially on a Denver team with little in the way of quality defenders. One could make the case that Craig is Denver’s best wing defender, which spells trouble for Denver. The Nuggets are going to be very bad defensively this season, and Craig is nowhere near the defender to try and make up for the shortcomings on that end of the floor, especially when he will likely be paired with two or more bad defenders in any lineup he’s in.
Last season Craig posted some below-average defensive metrics, from his -0.84 defensive real plus-minus to his -0.8 defensive box plus-minus (which is in line with the DBPM posted by Chandler and Barton). Even more souring is the negative impact Craig had on the team’s overall defense when on the floor, as it was 4.7 points per 100 possessions worse during his minutes (Per Cleaning The Glass).
Despite these numbers, Craig certainly plays with an infectious energy on defense, one that can rub off on teammates during the grind of anNBA regular season. Craig has solid defensive awareness and instincts, and the ability to wreak havoc on mediocre ball-handlers and play-makers, as he does below:
Craig can more than hold his own on the ball, highlighted by his long reach and solid mobility on the perimeter. Just watch as he does a good job of contesting (and blocking) a game-winning attempt from Jrue Holiday:
Craig also has the ability to recover after being beat off-the-dribble, using his wingspan and length to recover, which he does perfectly against Holiday in the same game:
In the end, while the numbers don’t paint a rosy picture of Craig’s defensive contributions, the film speaks to his ability to be a pest on the ball and provide those energy plays that every team needs during the regular season.
There will be nights where Craig’s poor shooting and limited offensive impact frustrates fans, just like there will be times he is overwhelmed defensively in some challenging lineups. However, with Craig filling the role as an effective cutter and corner shooter on offense and taking primary defensive assignments, he can slot into a variety of Nuggets’ lineups that continues to make the team one of the more enjoyable to watch and maybe, just maybe, a bit better on the defensive end.
After all, Craig is just a role player on a Denver team driven by star players, just like the rest of the league.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference, ESPN, and Cleaning The Glass.
Video courtesy of 3ball.io