Craig making the most of his NBA call-up

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By Travis Jenkins

His backstory is earning him a lot of attention and many new fans but so is the current story being authored by Torrey Craig.

Craig, who starred on the hardwood locally at Great Falls High School and USC-Upstate, now not only has his name on an NBA roster, he’s had it penciled into the starting lineup for three straight games. Craig was recently called up from the developmental G League by the Denver Nuggets. Craig is considered a two-way player, a designation that is new for this year, which allows a player to spend the majority of their year with a G League team but up to 45 days on an NBA roster. Nuggets Coach Michael Malone said when the team called Craig up, he didn’t want to waste the rookie’s limited time with the club riding the bench, so he put him in the starting lineup against the New Orleans Pelicans last Friday. He arrived just in time for shootaround with almost no sleep after having begun his day in Wisconsin and without much knowledge of the team’s plays. Still, in his first NBA start, he scored six points, pulled down four rebounds and had a pair of assists. He also played very well defensively, blocking a potential game-winning Jrue Holiday shot at the buzzer to send the contest to overtime, where the Nuggets emerged with a win. He started the next game as well, this time with the benefit of some rest and a bit more knowledge of what his team runs offensively. The Nuggets lost to Oklahoma City, but Craig went for 14 points on 5-of-5 shooting and hit all three of his three-point attempts. On Wednesday, against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Craig offered up a 10-point effort and added six rebounds on top of playing sticky defense.

Gina Mizell is the Nuggets beat writer for the Denver Post. She said at first, almost no one even knew who Craig was. During his stint in the summer league, she said one established Nuggets player took it a little too easy against Craig as he tried to drive to the hoop but soon realized, “I really have to try against the dude.” As he made a nice contribution against New Orleans, Mizell said a national (and well-known) NBA reporter confessed to her that he had never heard of Craig. He’s obviously gone from a totally unknown quantity to a legitimate player very quickly.

“I think he is one of the most fascinating guys in the league,” Mizell said.

Mizell is apparently not alone in that assessment. Partly because of the energy and hustle he brings to the floor (MIzell said coaches laud his “pretty relentless work ethic”), but partly because of his circuitous route to the NBA, Mizell said Nuggets fans have quickly taken a liking to Craig.

“I think it’s a combination of everything. Obviously, he’s contributed on the floor but his backstory is pretty cool,” she said.

The prologue to his current stint with the Nuggets includes playing at a small high school, then going to a program in its first years of Division I basketball playing in a mid-major conference. Despite being an all-conference pick who led his team in scoring for four straight years, Craig went undrafted and spent his first three professional seasons playing in Australia and New Zealand for the Cairns Taipans, Brisbane Bullets and Wellington Saints of the NBL and the Gold Coast Rollers of the QBL before earning an invite to play for Denver’s Summer League team. He was actually first noticed by the brother of Denver Nuggets Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly. Mizell said the Nuggets have a reputation for scouting internationally to begin with and it was hoped that Craig, with length, athletic ability and a tenacious style, could provide some much-needed defense. He’s viewed by some as a defensive specialist, but his 25.2 point-per-game scoring average with the G League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce (in 10 games) proves he’s a lot more than that.

“His defense is a pretty big point of emphasis, but they knew he wasn’t just a defensive specialist. He’s not just a defender. He’s very capable, obviously, of stepping out and knocking down a three,” Mizell said.

Craig has now played so well, he’s going to make things tough for Denver’s decision-makers. Mizell thinks she knows how things would play out if it were left up to Malone.

“I think if it were up to him, (Craig) would be on the roster for the long term,” she said. “I would not be shocked if that’s already being talked about.”

It isn’t as easy as just deciding that they want to keep Craig on the roster. The two-way contract is a new variable that teams are still learning to juggle, Mizell said, and there’s no history of its use to lean on. Teams don’t won’t to burn all 45 of a player’s days early in the season but also have their hand forced at times by injuries. To sign Craig to a standard contract would require clearing a roster spot and Mizell said she doesn’t know if there is an obvious choice on who to waive to make room.

As far as how he’s handling playing in big arenas against the biggest names in the sport (he’s already been tasked with guarding reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook), Mizell said Craig seems fairly unfazed despite his meteoric rise from the QBL to an NBA starting lineup over the course of a few months.

“It seems like he’s handling it well. I know that he’s excited and enjoying the moment. He’d established himself overseas but this was his dream,” Mizell said.

Mizell does believe that at some point, Craig will be a full-time NBA player. Hopefully that means the best part of his story is still to come.