Jamal Crawford waited longer than he expected for the call that came from the Brooklyn Nets, long enough that he began the process of settling in with the idea that it wasn’t coming. The last time he played an NBA game, Crawford scored 51 points for the Phoenix Suns in April 2019. At the close of the season, his 19th in the NBA, he was named the league’s Teammate of the Year after sliding into more of a veteran mentor role, three years after winning his third Sixth Man of the Year Award.
But the 2019-20 season started without him, and then four months ago, it stopped without him too. But as the NBA rolls toward its restart at the end of the month, Crawford is back, having signed with the Nets as a Substitute Player last week with Brooklyn down four players due to opt-outs and positive COVID-19 tests.
“It’s a blessing. It really is, because I’ve been on the outside for a year and once it gets to a certain point, you’re not sure that call’s going to happen and you have to face that reality as well,” said Crawford. “For me, I was trying to find a balance and go through it in my mind. So this call coming was a blessing and I’m really, really happy about it.”
Crawford took part in his first Nets practice Wednesday afternoon, as did guard Tyler Johnson, who was signed in June. Both players had to quarantine for nearly a week as they traveled to Orlando separately from Brooklyn’s team party.
With their arrival, the Nets had 10 roster players available in practice for the first time. They’re still waiting on Donta Hall and Lance Thomas to clear quarantine, and they still have the room to add another player.
“We’re going to be smart and strategic with how we implement them back into the fold,” said head coach Jacque Vaughn. “Not just going to throw them out and press their bodies into a position we don’t want them in yet, with the goal of really getting them in game shape. That conversation was the first thing, and then we kind of — the drills that we did, we got them in some drills, out of some drills, just to be smart. Overall Jamal’s a guy that’s going to be able to understand the flow of the game and speed of the game and put himself in the right position just by sheer IQ.”
Now that Crawford is starting his 20th NBA season, it will be something he’s never seen before, and at this point you’d think he’s seen it all. Drafted eighth overall out of Michigan in 2000, Crawford has been with eight NBA teams. Even with that movement, he’s only joined a team midseason once before, after being traded to Golden State in 2008. That squad wasn’t practicing in ballrooms while sequestered in a single-site campus to complete the season among a global pandemic.
“It’s different, because they have the continuity of being together for pretty much all year,” said Crawford. “Kind of being thrown together and still having something to play for is different, but it’s fun, it’s a challenge. I think it’s something that can keep us all engaged, in tune, listening to JV and fighting for that playoff spot and hopefully moving up in the playoffs as well. It’s an interesting dynamic, but not something that we frown upon. We’re excited about the opportunity and we’ll go from there.”
While the NBA restart provided an opportunity, it’s a complicated situation to dive back in to. Crawford could have taken a pass, after 1,326 NBA games and that 51-point game as a coda. Not a bad way to go out. But the drive that left him frustrated when the phone didn’t ring last summer was still there. Four months after his 40th birthday, Crawford wants to keep going.
“Just staying in love with the game,” said Crawford. “When you’re in love with it you’re willing to do whatever it takes, whether be it cold tubs, or massages, acupuncture, whatever it might be, changing your diet — which my wife did years ago before I even knew she changed it, she was slipping in water and different things on me — but I think when you love the game purely all those things you’re willing to do is sacrifice. I love it purely and I think that’s the only reason I’m still playing at this point.”
It’s one more phase for a player with a career scoring average of 14.6 points. Crawford has been a 20-point-per-game starter before becoming one of the NBA’s great off-the-bench scorers over his second decade in the league.
He won his first Sixth Man of the Year Award with Atlanta in 2009-10, then took home the honor two more times during his five-year run with the LA Clippers through the 2016-17 season.
“We'll use his ability to understand what we're in, give some calm to some of the younger guys on this staff and also be able to produce,” said Vaughn. “What's that going to look like on a day-to-day, week-to week basis, I think only time will tell. My only thoughts conveyed to him is we have to have an extreme honest relationship and when he's feeling it or not feeling it that communication has to be there. So we'll be very smart in how we use him. His ability to play the game of basketball and provide opportunities for shots for himself and others is going to be needed because he can create his own shot.”
“I think they have a great mix,” said Crawford. “I think Sean (Marks) has done an unbelievable job. I think JV in the two games he coached was really good. I loved watching him and being a part of what he’s doing as well. He’s so uplifting. I think he gives guys freedom on the court. When you give you your players that kind of freedom it takes thought out of the game. So I’m excited about bringing leadership, bringing playmaking, bringing scoring, bringing whatever is asked of me. Whatever is asked of me I try to do to the best of my ability and try to help the team for the stretch run.”