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Jae Crowder remains the sorely underappreciated part of the Suns' success

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
December 7, 2021

It’s hard to believe that Jae Crowder has only been in the Valley for just over a year now. Thanks to the pandemic hiatus extending the 2019-20 NBA season well into October, Crowder’s three-year, $30 million deal with the Phoenix Suns wasn’t made official until Nov. 28, and even then, the Chris Paul trade from a few weeks prior cast a long shadow over everything else.

It’s been a recurring theme over the last year, apparent in everything from the Suns’ unexpected NBA Finals run to games like Monday’s win over the San Antonio Spurs, when Crowder put up a season-high 19 points and 6 rebounds…which completely flew under the radar thanks to Paul’s magnificent fourth quarter.

It’s understandable; CP3 coming up with the biggest defensive play of the game and dropping 10 of his team-high 21 points in the final period should have been the biggest story of the night. The last 12 months as a whole would’ve been nowhere near as magical (or even possible) without him. He is the biggest catalyst behind this organization’s transformation.

But when discussing Phoenix’s rise to prominence, Crowder often gets lost in the shuffle, usually right in between the transition from hailing the Point God’s impact to raving about the young core’s growth. On and off the court, Crowder’s impact can be easy to overlook — unless you’re Monty Williams, of course.

“I think for me, I still try to give him attention, just because I don’t want to take that for granted,” he said. “Jae’s a guy that has a high IQ, he makes plays that you may not see in the stat sheet. I know that’s a cliche, but he’s a prototype for that.”

The numbers back Williams’ assertion up; on paper, Jae Crowder’s 9.3 points per game are the eighth-highest scoring average on the team (ninth-highest if you include Frank Kaminsky, who’s only suited up for nine games). He’s largely struggled from the field, and his offensive numbers are down across the board compared to last year:

  • 2020-21 Jae Crowder: 60 GP, 10.1 PPG, 40.4 FG%, 38.9 3P% (6.3 3PAs)
  • 2021-22 Jae Crowder: 24 GP, 9.3 PPG, 38.7 FG%, 33.8 3P% (5.3 3PAs)

Posting a field-goal percentage worse than your 3-point percentage from the season prior is typically not good, even for a guy taking most of his shots from long range!

And yet, there are numbers and more than a few examples from the film room that point to Crowder’s immense value, which extends beyond the stat sheet.

For starters, through 24 games, the Suns’ Net Rating jumps from a very pedestrian +1.7 with him off the court to a dominant +9.9 whenever he plays. Playing predominantly with the starters helps in that respect, but in Crowder’s 671 minutes of action, the Suns have outscored their opponents by 135 points, the second-highest figure on the team. They’re only a +18 in his 481 minutes of rest.

Maybe plus/minus and on/off-court numbers aren’t your thing. How about the tale of the tape, especially in the fourth quarter, where Phoenix has been so dominant this year?

In fourth quarters so far this season, Crowder is shooting 11-for-29 (37.9 percent) from 3-point range. He may not always be the catalyst behind some of the Suns’ dominant closeout performances, but he always finds a way to hit the backbreaking shots that teams have to live with when they’re forced into picking their poison between Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges.

Not one of these shots is a game-winner or even a dagger. But they’re all big, momentum-building or momentum-shifting plays, either in late comebacks (against the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks) or in games that were close until “JA3 CROWD3R” decided to show up (Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors):

“He’s not afraid to take big shots,” Williams said. “If you look at his career, he’s been a part of a lot of winning, and we value that for sure.”

According to NBA.com, Crowder is 5-for-10 from the floor in crunch-time scenarios this year. He’s also 3-for-6 from long range, and in just 38 minutes, his +45 in the clutch ranks third in the entire association, trailing only Paul and Bridges.

Crowder is hardly the focal point in Phoenix’s loaded starting lineup, but it’s allowed him to toss in a few daggers for a team that’s now 10-1 in games involving crunch-time minutes.

It’s not always the big-time fourth-quarter 3s that help turn the tide of a game though. Against the Spurs on Monday night, Crowder scored 9 of the Suns’ first 12 points in the third to help extend Phoenix’s lead into double figures.

“I was pretty much on, my shot felt great, and I just wanted to stay aggressive,” he said. “Obviously I was able to get the floater going to get me going. See one go in, and from there I was able to hit a few. So just trying to stay aggressive. I missed a few earlier and that just pissed me off a little bit.”

San Antonio would later rally and eventually tie the game in the fourth, but without Crowder’s scoring barrage to start the second half, Phoenix’s offense might have continued to spin its wheels in the mud like it had for most of the night.

Williams noted that it wasn’t just the 3-ball that’s been working for Crowder lately. While the veteran swingman was 4-for-10 from beyond the arc, he was also 3-for-4 from inside of it, and his attacks on the paint were key.

“He’s been really good at playing in 0.5 the last three or four games — getting to the basket, shooting his floater, and he also has the ability to find guys,” Williams said. “He’s just putting it down a lot better and more frequently than he was the first 15 games. And we need it. When you’re down as many guys as we’re down, you have to figure out ways to generate offense a little bit differently, so that’s a different way that we can use to score that we’re not typically used to seeing from our team.”

Crowder’s work on his floater was on full display, and while it’s easy to enjoy a laugh at his celebration — pretending to put on floaties whenever he or Bridges hit a floater — it’s a shot he’s worked on for playoff scenarios, when good defenses take away both the 3-point line and the rim.

With Devin Booker still out, finding other ways to score and facilitate has been a big focus. Jae Crowder floaters aren’t the optimal shot for a top-10 offense, but they’re slowly being sharpened into yet another surprise weapon for this team to bludgeon opponents with when plays break down and the top options aren’t available.

“I’m trying to think ahead, I’m trying to play ahead and I think that helps our offense, just opening up the court for everybody,” Crowder said. “Just being able to get downhill and make plays for myself and for others. Just take the load off these guys. Obviously Book is out, so I’m just trying to create as much as possible for myself as well as for my teammates, and this year, I’ve been trying to focus on the floater.”

Over the last four games, with Booker missing all but 15 minutes, Crowder has bumped up his production to 12.3 points and 6.5 3-point attempts per game, canning 38.5 percent of his triples. On top of the usual stout defense that only rarely results in a highlight-reel play,

And just being the salsa-dancing, floatie-wearing, ejection-goading heel that other teams love to hate,

Crowder is doing everything in his power to make an impact, despite typically being held under 30 minutes a night.

It’s a fairly impressive feat for a guy who refreshingly admitted at Media Day that he was both mentally and physically tired last year coming off a Finals run with the Miami Heat, which was followed by a historically short offseason. Going through that process a second time, this time with the Suns, is one possible explanation for the lower shooting percentages.

Phoenix also played a whopping 16 games in over 31 days. Although the Suns put together a franchise-record 18-game win streak over that stretch, Crowder was the first to admit they needed this upcoming stretch with three days before their next game on Friday.

“I’ve had my share of times,” he said. “It’s been tough, back-to-backs here and there that I physically just don’t have it. I’m trying to find it mentally, but I think that comes with time. I think that comes with getting in the top shape I could be in. Obviously that was a tough month.”

Williams said he’s had conversations with the 31-year-old vet about trusting him when it comes to keeping his minutes down. Fortunately, Crowder and the Suns are both taking a broader view of the season, with the ultimate endgame always in mind.

Across such a long season, injuries will come. The Suns are experiencing that firsthand already, with Devin Booker, Abdel Nader and Frank Kaminsky joining Dario Saric on the sidelines, not to mention Deandre Ayton and Cam Payne having dealt with their own minor injuries early on.

But that unique challenge of learning to play without Booker is a rare opportunity to empower some of the role players, and so far, Crowder has stepped up as one of the veteran leaders ready to help shoulder the load.

“I think that’s the biggest picture is just knowing that we can get the job done with or without one of our best players on the court,” Crowder said. “So that’ll bring life to our team, that’ll bring confidence to other guys to make plays, and especially when he comes back, to continue to just make plays and believe in the abilities of what you can do on the court.”

As has been the case since the two first arrived in Phoenix, Chris Paul will continue to outshine Jae in terms of on-court production, media narratives and leadership qualities. But that doesn’t mean Crowder’s value in any of those categories should be overlooked either.

“There is value in having guys like Jae on your team, in your locker room, on the bus,” Williams said. “For me, the communication that we have in-game, on off-days, about the team really helps me view things differently than I see them. Jae has leadership qualities that have really helped our program grow immensely. The way he goes around the gym and spends time with all of the players in different groups, it says a lot about him and really helps our team.”

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