NEW ORLEANS — Jordan Crawford is no stranger to scoring.
However, humility and maturity are new traits he’s been testing out over the last year. When you find yourself out of the NBA four years into your pro career and searching for work in China, you have a choice to make on how realistic you want to be with yourself. That can be tough when others around you are questioning why you’re not in the NBA. When your grandmother is convinced you’ve been “blackballed from the league,” you learn a lot about yourself as you try to explain your situation to your loved ones.
Crawford sits in the middle of the New Orleans Pelicans locker room in March nestled next to DeMarcus Cousins’ new locker. He’s trying to balance the confidence that allows him to score and the humility that allowed him to get back to the NBA after a 2.5-year hiatus. Crawford sits there defending the competition he faced in China. He faced professionals in a league so often dismissed. They’re trying to prove themselves against American imports. The lesser American imports are trying to take down the more famous American imports.
It’s not the best basketball in the world and it’s not even the second best basketball in the world. But Crawford will be quick to remind you that it takes more than one player in that league to win games. He would know after dropping 72 points and 16 rebounds in a loss one night in China. Asked if putting up 72 points in a game is a moment he was feeling it like he rarely had at any level of competition, a smile creeps across his face.
“Well, to be honest,” Crawford remembers, “I averaged 43 [points per game] over there. So every game was kind of like it.”
Crawford’s journey has had many different paths
Crawford will speak a lot about “the journey” he is on. It seems apropos considering he’s on his fifth team in five NBA seasons over seven years. That journey also includes two different stops in China and two different stints in the D-League. He played at two different colleges, as well. But the journey for Crawford has been more than just different physical stops around the basketball world. It’s been an emotional journey that has him looking in the mirror to figure out who he has been and who he wants to become.
“At 28, I want to be different than me at 25,” Crawford explains.
At 25, Crawford thought things were coming together for him. He was an Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the Boston Celtics that season. He dropped 41 points in his final regular-season game after being traded to the Golden State Warriors. In a five-point Game 7 loss in the first-round of the playoffs, Crawford scored 12 points in just under 12 minutes.
After the completion of his fourth season in the league, Crawford was hoping to either re-sign with the Warriors or sign with a new team where his confidence could continue. The phone calls never really came, though. He signed a deal in September of 2014 to join the Xinjiang Flying Tigers. Crawford only appeared in five games with the Flying Tigers because something happened with his eyes he can’t really explain.
“I went to the doctor and we couldn’t find out what it was,” Crawford recalled. It wasn’t an infection. It might have been stress related. His eyelids puffed up and dropped. Eventually, they would open back up fully, but it cut his time in China down to just two months. Crawford came back to the States and tried to get with an NBA team for the stretch run. He settled for 14 games with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
Crawford tried the NBA again, this time getting a chance with the Chicago Bulls in training camp before the 2015-16 season. He was waived right before the season began and four weeks later signed back in China with the Tianjin Ronggang Gold Lions. He spent another couple of months there, averaging 43.1 points. A scorer was unleashed on the rest of the world because he couldn’t get back to the world he wanted to be in.
“It’s fun,” Crawford says about playing in China. “You get to see how good you are. You get real good at basketball because you have it in your hands a lot.”
He spent that time getting his head right and finding out what he could and couldn’t control in life. 10 times a day, he’d hear from loved ones, social media and friends that he belonged in the NBA. Unfortunately for him, NBA teams weren’t the ones saying he should come back. At a certain point, he didn’t blame anyone or anything for not living his ultimate dream. He just made sure to learn from his experiences.
“This journey that I’m on,” Crawford explains, “It’s a basketball journey because that’s the business, but it’s really life.”
That’s how Crawford found himself embracing a second D-League stint. The journey took him to the Grand Rapids Drive at the start of this season.
Learning and showcasing at the D-League level
The D-League has worked hard to get rid of its stigma as being a demotion. Opportunity exists there for young players and NBA veterans, if they are willing to put up with less than professional conditions and extremely low pro basketball wages. The entirety of the league is about growth. Coaches go there to grow. Players go there to grow and learn. Young executives cut their teeth there. Spending time there now isn’t the same as being relegated to competition there previously.
The NBA and the Players Union has worked toward making it a more lucrative venture, as well. Two-way contracts are coming. More money is being made available for the salaries. Players can forego a year of college or international play if they feel the need to prove themselves in the D-League instead. The stigma of relegation is turning the corner. Rasual Butler went to the Tulsa 66ers in 2012-13 after 10 years in the NBA as an effort to eventually join the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The opportunity was for him to keep acquiring experience, reps and knowledge of his profession.
“You don’t ever stop learning about the game of basketball,” Butler told me back in 2014 as a member of the Washington Wizards. “It’s always changing, always evolving.”
With the personal growth, Crawford was experiencing going back and forth to China, he was ready to keep learning, as well. It kept him sharp and it kept him honest on the court. It kept him learning his profession and finding his path back to the NBA, where so many felt he belonged.
“There’s good talent in the D-League,” Crawford says about the D-League. “Play up and down game. It’s real fun, exciting. I think it kept me sharp.”
He started just 17 of his 37 games in Grand Rapids, but he was playing about 30 minutes per game. He shot well from three-point range (35.5 percent). Crawford also put up good scoring numbers and distributed the ball well (28.4 points, 4.2 assists per 36 minutes). Crawford embraced the opportunity in the D-League because it was an exciting opportunity to showcase his growth both on and off the court.
The chance to play in the D-League wasn’t settling; it was simply the next step in his journey of getting back to the NBA. On March 6, Crawford rejoined the NBA when Drive coach Rex Walters called Crawford to tell him he was getting the call to join the New Orleans Pelicans.
Finding his presence on a team in need of an identity
It didn’t take long for Crawford to get something more substantial and stable than a 10-day deal with New Orleans. He scored 19 points in 20 minutes in his Pelicans debut. He’d score 19 points again two games later and hit double digits in each of his four games during the 10-day deal while shooting 52.2 percent from the field and from three.
The Pelicans were desperate for a perimeter presence who was comfortable at Alvin Gentry’s ideal pace. Their blockbuster move to acquire DeMarcus Cousins from the Sacramento Kings left them thin on the wings. They’ve cycled through 10-day deals with Jarrett Jack, Wayne Selden, Hollis Thompson and now Quinn Cook. But it was Crawford who immediately made them feel like they had to add him for longer than the 10-day carousel.
Gentry found a comfort in bringing Crawford off the bench, which pairs him with E’Twuan Moore and gives the Pelicans a pairing that feeds off each other. The struggle for the Pelicans in this season and especially since Cousins’ arrival is finding a pace they feel comfortable playing. Ideally, Gentry would be channeling his time under Mike D’Antoni and his time with the Golden State Warriors to push. But the Pelicans don’t quite have the wings or the shooting to take full advantage of it.
“I appreciate that they’ve accepted me,” Crawford says of the Pelicans embracing his style of play. “The 10-day [contract] was the accomplishment. I didn’t really feel like I was on a 10-day once I was here. The hard part was getting the 10-day. I just wanted to play my game.”
When they can go to the bench unit and Crawford gets some room to dance within the system, the results are positive. He galvanizes the style of play for Gentry. It helps that he’s uncharacteristically hit half of his threes so far through seven games.
“The game of basketball has went that route,” Crawford explains of his game matching the up-tempo style Gentry craves. “The 2.5 years I’ve been out the league, it’s changed even more. The guards really dictate the pace of the game. That’s a fun way to play. It’s how I always grew up playing.”
Crawford never ignored the NBA while he was away. He wasn’t afraid or frustrated to watch what he couldn’t participate in. He used it as study sessions and paid close attention to the evolving style around the league. Jealousy of other D-League players getting opportunities before him didn’t exist. He championed those transactions because it meant the D-League was producing more opportunities and trust to fill roster holes.
Past accomplishments wouldn’t consume Crawford on what should’ve been. He found it weird that a man whose last regular season game produced 41 points couldn’t make a roster the following season, but he was more impressed with his final playoff performance anyway. And it just showed him that he wasn’t quite the player or the man he needed to be.
“It was a joy because I love the man I’m becoming,” Crawford says. “I appreciated being out the league and learning.”
His scoring in the heart of Louisiana basketball has been quick to form. The organization feels they’ve found a real contributor at a position of need. Working him into their style has been seamless and successful so far. It even earned him the new nickname “Instant Grits,” bestowed upon him by DeMarcus Cousins.
“I eat the old fashioned, good grits,” Crawford jokes when asked about his connection to the nickname. “I take time on them.”
His career took time to resurrect, as well. But now that Crawford is back, he’s ready to learn where his journey will take him next.