Jae Crowder’s team-first mentality and unmatched competitiveness play critical role in Suns’ success
The phone rings.
On the other end of Buzz Williams’ 2009 call was Howard College coach Mark Adams, who had persuaded Williams to hear him out about a player he wanted Williams to recruit to Marquette.
“Buzz, he is the best player I've ever coached,” Adams started the call.
“Coach, he can't be the best player you ever coached because you at one time were coaching the leading scorer in Division I,” Williams responded.
But Adams was adamant that this kid was something special. So, Williams traveled from Milwaukee to Big Spring, Texas, a town between Abilene and Midland with a population of about 28,000, to watch a 19-year-old Jae Crowder playing junior-college ball. A Division I scholarship was on the line.
Crowder fouled out early after only recording five points and three rebounds.
Adams apologized to Williams following the game, saying it was the worst Crowder had ever played. Adams suggested that Williams come back and watch Crowder another time in hopes of a stronger performance.
“Coach, I’m not coming back,” Williams told Adams.
“He was the best teammate I have ever seen in my life,” Williams said of watching the fiery Crowder on the sidelines. “First on the floor to give daps at timeouts, waving the towel, screaming, hollering and clapping. He became a coach during that game.”
Despite never hosting Crowder for a campus visit or extending an official phone call or letter, Williams offered him a scholarship that evening.
Williams had gotten an early glimpse at the NBA player Crowder would become.
Since entering the league as a second-round draft pick in 2012, Crowder has made the playoffs in seven of eight seasons, despite playing for six different teams throughout those years. Along the way, he has garnered respect throughout the NBA for his leadership, his hustle and his willingness to do whatever is necessary to get the win on any given night.
Now, he’s a valuable contributor to the 31-14 Suns that sit in second place in the Western Conference, averaging ten points, five rebounds and two assists per game as a versatile and defensive-minded wing with a crucial locker-room voice. Whether he starts or comes off the bench as the sixth man, launches the big-time shot or sets it up, guards ballhandlers or centers or battles in the paint or dives for a loose ball, Crowder’s team-first mentality and overall love for the game are precisely why the Suns signed him as a free agent.
And Crowder’s immediate impact in The Valley does not surprise the man who offered him that Division I scholarship more than a decade ago.
“What he did at Marquette is kind of what he's done nine years in the league,” Williams said. “Like, 'Hey, I'm on a new team. I've got new players. I've got new teammates and a new style of play on offense and defense.' He just figures out how to have a role that helps his team win.
“(He) helps winning no matter where he's at and no matter the style of play and no matter who's on the floor with him.”
Crowder’s father and former NBA player, Corey Crowder, provided Jae with a mentor to look up to, helping him grow his game and take basketball seriously. That high level of maturity set in at a young age for Crowder. Even if he was the best player on the court, he never cared about personal statistics or accolades.
Although his talent was clearly advanced growing up, Crowder wasn’t thinking about the NBA while playing for Villa Rica High School about 30 miles west of Atlanta. His focus was purely on the next level.
“I was thinking about making my parents proud and go to college and get a scholarship and play basketball,” Crowder said. “Once I got to college, (the NBA) was the next step. But in high school, I was just really focused on getting to Division I basketball.”
What opened his eyes to team basketball even more was when he was named the 2010 Junior College Player of the Year at Howard, leading the team to its first-ever NJCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship. Despite being crowned the best player at that level, he knew he couldn’t have won the championship if not for the players around him.
“It takes all of the guys to get the job done and get a championship,” Crowder said. “Once I figured out that part of the game, I definitely bought into the team aspect because I want to be successful. I want to be on a winning team. I want to win. I want to do whatever it takes to win.”
That mentality proved valuable when Crowder chose to sign with Marquette, after Williams vowed to Crowder’s father that he would coach his son hard and hold him accountable.
Crowder joined a Golden Eagles roster with future NBA All-Star Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson Odom leading the way. Adjusting to a higher level of basketball, Crowder bounced between starting and coming off of the bench, but always found a way to impact the game. After entering the 2011 NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed, Marquette proved to be a great underdog story as they upset sixth-seeded Xavier and third-seeded Syracuse in the first two rounds before ultimately falling to second-seeded North Carolina.
Entering his senior season, Crowder did not receive a single vote for the preseason all-conference team. Yet, by the conclusion of that season, he was named Big East Player of the Year and had become an NBA prospect.
“How he processes and how he affects winning belies his talent,” Williams said. “Yes, he's talented. Is he the most talented? No. Does he help you win on both ends of the floor? Yes, he does because arguably one of his best talents is how hard he plays and how much he cares about the outcome of the game.”
He began his NBA career in Dallas, where he learned from veteran greats Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. He was a key player on Boston and Utah teams that were defensive forces and postseason participants. He was traded from Memphis to Miami at last season’s deadline, and became a starter on a Heat team that advanced to the NBA Finals.
Crowder has never been satisfied just being a scorer or a rebounder or a defender. His goal is to be the most well-rounded basketball player he can be. His knowledge for the game and his non-stop motor on the court are what have separated him from others.
Those small, detailed moments that many may overlook — such as diving for a loose ball or setting a backdoor screen — are the winning plays that make Crowder so successful.
“I just play basketball to win,” Crowder said. “I've watched basketball every day of my life. This is my life. I've always loved basketball and I love everything about it. I just started to study and I try to get better at my craft.
“I try to put in a lot of effort into my plays. I know that's what it takes to win, especially at this level in the NBA.”
Most players throughout the NBA stick to their position groups when putting up extra shots following practice. But not Crowder. Suns coach Monty Williams noticed that Crowder is the one player who will jump around the gym and shoot with different groups in an effort to build those relationships.
“Whether it's shooting with the younger guys, shooting with his normal group, he's always finding authentic ways to spend time with his teammates,” Monty Williams said. “That leads to a sped-up process in the connection when you come to a new team. It certainly has helped us. He's become one of our leaders.”
Crowder has proven that the lights are never too bright, the challenge is never too daunting and the task is never too minuscule. That makes him the perfect piece to any team-building puzzle, because he’s always able to find ways to impact the game and make the jobs of those around him easier.
For Williams, Crowder is able to provide vocal leadership on the court, as well as give him the flexibility to change his rotations depending on matchup.
For Devin Booker, he is able to set screens, create separation and allow Booker space to work offensively.
For Chris Paul, he is able to box out inside, to allow Paul to grab the defensive rebound and quickly initiate the offensive.
For the young wings like Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, he allows for smooth switching defensively as well as provides flashy passes to those cutting to the basket.
For Deandre Ayton, he brings a big body to help in the paint while also being able to space the floor and give Ayton room to work inside.
And overall, he’s able to bring a contagious energy to the lineup, helping provide a boost for anyone sharing the court with him.
“I can't even put a value on that kind of player and that kind of attitude,” Williams said. “He's all about winning. He's all about playing the right way.”
Crowder is also the ultimate wildcard to disrupt the other teams’ game plan. When opposing coaches need to set up a defensive scheme, they are forced to guess whether Crowder is the screener, the shooter or even the passer. That often leaves the Suns with the advantage.
Crowder’s experience, knowledge and leadership are especially helpful in showing a young Suns core how to stay focused — and produce — during late-game situations.
“I preach it to the guys, especially like in the fourth quarter with four minutes to go,” Crowder said. “My favorite sayings is, 'It's winning time. It's time to make winning plays on both ends of the court.’”
Crowder is unafraid to take the big shot, such as when he buried a 3-pointer to force double overtime against Denver in late January or when he tied the game from beyond the arc in the final minute of Wednesday’s game at Orlando.
But Crowder’s impact in key moments does not always pop off the box score.
Take a fourth-quarter sequence during a March 2 win at the defending-champion Lakers as an example. As an off-target shot sailed toward the baseline, Bridges went airborne to save the ball from going out of bounds.
Waiting in the lane to receive the ball for a quick layup to put the Suns up seven: Crowder.
“Jae just made a quick little noise, and I saw him,” Bridges said. “If he didn’t make that noise, I probably would have (thrown) it backcourt or something. But he helped me and just (was) there for me. That’s what we do for each other.”
Count it as another winning play from Crowder.
“I don't lose myself in where I'm at in my career, how many points I scored that night, or how many rebounds I had,” Crowder said. “All of that stuff takes care of itself. My peers know. I have respect from everybody in the league. That's the greatest accomplishment I could really feel at this level. The rest of the stuff just takes care of itself.”