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Preseason previews, predictions and 99.9 percent of analysis heading into the Phoenix Suns’ 2022-23 campaign revolved around everyone and everything but Torrey Craig. As one of the lone holdovers from a second unit that mostly disappeared during the Suns’ underwhelming 2022 playoff run, Craig was something of an afterthought.
True enough, he did little against the New Orleans Pelicans or Dallas Mavericks to warrant discussion, or even prevent himself from being phased out of the playoff rotation.
It was a stark contrast from the Suns’ Cinderella postseason run the year prior, when Craig was an injection of energy off the bench. Even in more limited minutes, he provided multi-positional defense, smart cutting, secondary playmaking, offensive rebounding and every other scrappy, high-flying play one could think of.
Bringing Craig back to Phoenix before last year’s trade deadline was a welcome reunion, but one that never managed to conjure up a repeat of one of the loudest moments from their 2021 NBA Finals run. It wasn’t some out-of-body highlight in and of itself, but the Dario Saric steal, Cam Payne’s ambitious yet graceful shot-put of a pass, and Craig running the floor to throw it down nearly blew the roof off the building.
Even for Game 1 of a second-round series, it was an experience.
That same magic was missing during Craig’s second stint in the Valley, but if his start to the new campaign is any indication, his third season with the Suns may be a return to form.
Granted, five games is a tiny sample size, and the 6.8 points and 3.0 rebounds per game he’s averaging are hardly anything to get too excited about. However, those averages include an opening two games where he tallied just 5 points and 2 rebounds in 20 minutes of playing time.
Since then, Craig has put up 29 points and 17 rebounds in 52 minutes over the next three games. Friday against the New Orleans Pelicans, he came off the bench and injected some familiar life into the second unit, finishing with 13 points and 6 rebounds while shooting a perfect 6-for-6 from the field. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the first time (or even the second) he’s posted perfect shooting numbers off the bench.
“That was a key thing for when we was in the Finals and the playoffs and he was out there, just him defending, making shots and getting us extra possessions,” Mikal Bridges said. “So it was a hell of a game for T-Craig. Expect that out of him every night.”
As Bridges alluded to, the key to Torrey Craig’s strong performance, as has often been the case since he first arrived in Phoenix, was unrelenting effort on the offensive glass.
“We’re trying to generate more possessions with the offensive rebounding, and I thought Torrey was phenomenal setting the tone in the first half,” coach Monty Williams said. “He just kept going and going, and he got a couple of ’em. Had a follow-up dunk, got a rebound, put-back. I thought it gave us a lot of life.”
Four of Craig’s 6 rebounds came on the offensive end Friday night, and on the season, 8 of his 19 boards have been offensive. Despite ranking 255th out of all NBA players in total minutes so far this season, he’s in the top 50 for offensive rebounding percentage and offensive rebounds per 100 possessions, and he’s just outside the top 50 in total offensive boards.
Even this early in the season, watching Craig fly in from the perimeter, rise up over taller players around him and corral the loose ball — all while embracing contact in the pursuit of his target — has its own kind of violent beauty to it:
Williams has mentioned multiple times that the Suns are more focused on “strategically” sending guys to crash the offensive boards this year. It’s a battle assistant coach Kevin Young has been waging for a while now, and the prowess of Bridges, Craig and Deandre Ayton on that front represents his best argument in pushing for those changes.
“Kevin Young’s persistence that we go to the offensive boards, I mean, he’s been driving me nuts with that for two years,” Williams joked. “Mikal, that’s right up his alley. I think he and Torrey are the best on our team outside of DA, DA does it naturally.”
As Craig noted last year, he’s been working on that element of his game since high school and college, chalking those skills up to “effort and a little bit of timing.” But those kinds of confidence-killers for opponents add up, especially when the Suns can cash in on the chaotic, momentum-shifting second-chance opportunities they afford.
It got to the point last year where Ayton would joke that Craig needed to “stay off his glass” and save some offensive rebounds for the rest of the team. Craig even wound up injuring himself in the playoffs after taking a hard fall on his elbow while flying through the air chasing a rebound. Fortunately, it doesn’t appear that negative experience will hold him back from crashing the boards any time soon.
If chaos is a ladder, Craig will continue hurtling himself over the top of it.
“I’m an aggressive offensive rebounder, so whenever I see a shot go up, I just play on the front foot,” Craig said Friday. “Just kind of been a habit of mine throughout my career going back to high school and college, so whenever I see it go up, my front foot automatically takes me to the rim, and I’m able to get a lot offensive rebounds that way.”
Of course, it’s not just offensive rebounds and put-backs that have helped Craig make an impact early on. As a career 33.2 shooter from distance, we’ll see some regression to the mean soon enough, but so far, Craig has shot 6-for-12 from distance.
For whatever reason, when Torrey Craig puts on a Suns uniform, those shots seem to fall at a higher rate than anywhere else in his six-year career. In 64 regular-season games with Phoenix, he’s made 35.4 percent of his 3s, including a career-best 36.9 percent in his first stint.
“The team definitely gives you confidence,” Craig said. “[Chris Paul], [Devin Booker], coach, they all preach to shoot the ball and just let it fly. That’s definitely a mentality we have, and it’s benefited a lot of guys here. I don’t think I’m the only one it’s benefitted, and I think a lot of guys come here and have career years.”
Perhaps more important than shooting at an unsustainable 50 percent clip is the way Craig has mixed in cuts and drives with the 3s he’s hoisting. When the Suns got him back at the 2022 trade deadline, Williams said they had a talk after the first handful of games about finding the right balance, because they felt he was taking too many 3s.
Those conversations aren’t always easy, especially for a team that touts a “let it fly” mentality, but they’ve seen more promising results with his slashing ever since.
“I think the thing that Torrey has really improved is the balance,” Williams said. “Last year, I thought he stayed outside a ton and just jacked up a lot of 3s. And we know he can make 3s, but we felt like he needed balance. I think unleashing him to go to the offensive boards allows him to be a weapon for us. He’s shot the ball this year so far decently, and he’s just attacking the rim.
“And then defensively, he’s always been a physical, big wing that can get after people. So he’s important to our team, and sometimes you only notice the rebounding because it’s such a boost of a play for us. But I think he’s shown great balance — when to take the shot, when to drive, and for sure he’s getting us extra possessions.”
Again, small sample size alert, but even though 12 of Craig’s 21 field goal attempts this season have come from beyond the arc, another eight have been right near the basket — and he’s made all eight of them. The 3s won’t always fall at a 50 percent rate, but converting layups and dunks (most of which stem from cuts or offensive rebounds) is a good way to ensure he remains playable during another deep postseason run.
For Craig’s part, making those adjustments wasn’t really a point of emphasis coming into the season, but rather, an instinctual read on what the Suns needed and where he could help out. Like another offensive board, those needs for the second unit weren’t hard for him to sniff out and track down.
“It’s been natural just trying to feel the game and read the game, knowing when I need to pick my spots to be aggressive and shoot the shots that’s available,” Craig said. “It’s still early, man, but I’m just trying to be more consistent this year and play with a lot of energy.”