RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Torrey Craig's versatility and hustle are on display in Suns' playoff series against his former team
DENVER — Torrey Craig’s frustration from the previous possession fueled his takeoff.
As Chris Paul let go of a step-back 3-pointer during the third quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Denver Nuggets, Craig got in position to secure an offensive rebound and was wrapped and taken to the ground by Facundo Campazzo with no foul called.
So when Phoenix Suns teammate Dario Saric collected a steal on the other end and got the ball to Cameron Payne, a seething Craig pointed one finger up as he sprinted down the court. Then he went airborne, soaring down the lane for a two-handed alley-oop slam that stands as the most crowd-rocking play of Phoenix’s thrilling playoff ride so far.
“No matter where he threw it, I was going to get it,” Craig said.
What Craig left out of his retelling of that sequence is that the only reason Paul could shoot that particular 3-pointer is because Craig hustled to track down his own miss from the corner — and withstood a bump from Campazzo — seconds earlier. That’s been the fourth-year wing’s role since the Suns picked him up in a mid-March trade with Milwaukee for cash considerations.
Craig is a versatile defender and willing rebounder on both ends. He will dive for 50/50 balls and flash his athleticism via deflections and blocks. He has gotten more offensive opportunities with the Suns as an outside shooter and authoritative finisher off cuts and in transition. Now, Craig is showcasing all of those attributes during a playoff series against his former team while providing a jolt to the Suns’ championship aspirations.
“We would be in a different place if we didn’t have Torrey Craig on our team,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “He came at the right time. … It was the right spot for Torrey. We needed him, and he needed us.”
Craig recently called the past seven or eight months “maybe the most hectic of my life.” That’s saying something for a player who took a winding path to the NBA and has been one of its more surprising success stories in recent seasons.
Craig hails from Great Falls, South Carolina (population: 2,042) and, after going undrafted out of the University of South Carolina Upstate, played overseas in Australia and New Zealand’s National Basketball League. After receiving an invitation to play on the Nuggets’ Summer League team in 2017, he earned one of the NBA’s first two-way contracts as a 26-year old rookie. He parlayed that season into a full two-year contract, then helped Denver to consecutive playoff berths including a Western Conference Finals appearance last season.
Followinig the Nuggets’ run in the Orlando Bubble, Craig began the offseason living and training in Miami as a restricted free agent. The Nuggets extended a qualifying offer to Craig but later rescinded it, making him an unrestricted free agent without Denver being able to match an offer from another team.
Williams and Craig acknowledge today that the Suns pursued Craig in free agency, and that there was strong interest from Craig in signing with Phoenix. Instead, Craig joined another contender in the Milwaukee Bucks, but never found rhythm with that team. He underwent surgery after breaking his nose in the Bucks’ third game of the season, which kept him out for nearly a month. He did not play much when he returned, calling that period “a low time for me.”
“I couldn’t understand what was going on,” Craig said, “why I was there at this point in my career, and knowing I could help a team and not playing and not understanding why.”
Before a March 17 game in Philadelphia, a Bucks representative told Craig he had been traded but did not reveal his new team. When Craig found he was heading to Phoenix, his immediate reaction was, “Wow, that’s perfect.” Williams echoed Craig’s delight, texting him “It all worked out, anyway” shortly after both teams completed the deal.
The Suns needed Craig to play immediately. Abdel Nader had sustained a knee injury that eventually required surgery, and Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder both missed stints of time due to injury and illness. Craig did not know many of the Suns’ plays when he first arrived, but figured it out on the fly because “he had no choice,” Williams said.
Craig leaned on his past experiences to adapt so quickly.
After leading his college conference in scoring in back-to-back seasons, he shifted his focus to become the NBL’s Best Defensive Player in 2016-17. As a two-way player with the Nuggets, he spent a chunk of his rookie season with the G League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce and could only spend 45 total days participating in basketball activities with Denver.
When the Nuggets abruptly needed Craig to make his first NBA start, he traveled from Oshkosh, Wisconsin to Denver on minimal sleep, then made a critical block on then-Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday to force overtime in a Nuggets win less than 24 hours later. Throughout that season, the Nuggets regularly held Craig out of practice and had him travel on commercial fights in an effort to maximize those 45 days.
“My whole career, my whole life, I’ve just been able to adjust and fit in any situation,” Craig said.
Craig believes his style of play helps him achieve that objective. His motor has always been a point of pride, sharing his body was always peppered with floor burns, scratches and bruises as child because he dove for so many loose balls. As a pro, he thrives on being able to cut off the ball, then crash the glass, then run the floor the opposite way, knowing that burst of energy is what teammates need from him the most.
“To me, it’s mental,” Craig said. “Even if I’m looking tired, I’m breathing hard, I’m still gonna go after the ball and do the extra dirty work. … If I’m gonna play 15 minutes this game, I’m gonna make sure I empty the tank in 15 minutes.”
Every day with the Suns helped Craig learn a bit more, such as which side of the floor to begin offensive possessions on and what spots his new teammates like. Player development coach Riccardo Fois and assistants Kevin Young and Willie Green worked with Craig to decipher plays, terminology and hand gestures, while other staffers such as Ben Strong and Brian Randle got on the floor to script offensive sets and defensive coverages.
Teammates also helped Craig feel welcome as a midseason addition.
Mikal Bridges, who first met Craig through the 2019 Team USA Select team, gave Craig the nickname “Big Country” that all players now use. Craig got to know younger teammates by joining their shooting groups following practices. Paul, Crowder and Devin Booker invited Craig to play popular NBA card game Booray on his first plane ride with the Suns, and now mimic dealing a hand during starting-lineup introductions before every game.
“(His) personality of just jumping right into the fold,” Williams said, “that’s endeared him to his team and the staff.”
On the floor, Craig immediately impressed with his uncanny ability to snag offensive rebounds, defend multiple positions and bury timely 3-pointers. He filled in as the starting power forward while Crowder nursed a late-season ankle injury, recording a season-best 20 points and 14 rebounds in an April 25 game at Brooklyn. The 6-foot-7, 220-pounder has even played some small-ball center, including guarding Marc Gasol during the playoffs’ first round.
Craig averaged 7.2 points and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 36.9 percent from beyond the arc in 18.8 minutes over 32 regular-season games with Phoenix. His playoff numbers entering Friday’s Game 4 at Denver are comparable in shorter-minute bursts, including shooting 38.9 percent on 2.3 3-point attempts per game.
While preparing for this series against the Nuggets, Craig has spoken up in meetings about his previous team’s schemes and player tendencies. He spent time ahead of Game 1 catching up with former teammates and staff on the Denver bench, and calls Michael Porter Jr. one of his closest friends. Before Game 2, Nuggets coach Michael Malone candidly said, “I definitely wish (Craig) was still in a Denver Nugget uniform” and praised the way he has learned to play off Booker and Paul in the same way he played off Nuggets stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
After totaling nine points and eight rebounds — including that highlight-worthy third-quarter alley-oop — during a Game 1 victory, Craig got a dose of tough luck at the start of Game 2. Upon receiving a slick pass from Saric, Craig’s corner 3 hit seemingly every part of the rim before spitting out. A few minutes later, Craig could not convert a tip-in attempt.
But Craig raced the other way and blocked Monte Morris from behind when he pulled up from the free throw line, a play that led to a Saric 3-pointer to help the Suns build a double-digit first-half lead. Later in the game, Craig secured a tip-in off a Payne miss, hit a 3 in front of Denver’s bench and powered his way to an And-1 finish in transition.
Then, as Paul used his slick handle to dance on Paul Millsap early in the fourth quarter, Craig cut to the basket and received the ball for the easy layup.
“Torrey actually bailed me out,” Paul said. “I got in trouble. I didn’t have a shot, so thank God he cut for me.”
That all epitomizes a wild few months for Craig. He found his niche in Phoenix, fitting the Suns’ relentless style. And for a guy willing to make all the hustle plays, Craig's role during the Suns’ postseason run is an appropriate reward.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Craig said. “But I’m here now, and we’re playing our best basketball at the right time.”
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