Reputations are difficult to shake in the NBA. And Jordan Crawford has been living with the selfish tag for years, despite being only 25 years old.
He was tabbed a self-centered player who focused strictly on offense but still felt he should receive a primary role while with the Washington Wizards. Confidence is a funny thing at this level. For many players, it is the reason why they are in the NBA, but it is also why some players never develop or flourish. They feel they are already a finished product.
Crawford came to Boston last February with baggage. Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld dumped a player on his rookie contract for Jason Collins and an injured Leandro Barbosa. Crawford complained in Washington that he should have been given a larger role after essentially being benched when John Wall returned from his knee injury.
Feeling a sense of freedom when he came to the Celtics, Crawford learned about winning from the veterans. He kept his mouth shut, but that scorer’s mentality crept back in, and Doc Rivers only used Crawford in stretches during the Celtics’ playoff run.
So when the Celtics didn’t pick up the fifth-year option on Crawford’s contract, it was no surprise. Management wanted Crawford to determine his own fate, and he is transforming his game at the most opportune time for himself and the Celtics.
He was masterful in Monday night’s 120-105 win over the Magic at TD Garden, running the Celtics offense. He finished with 16 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds, and no turnovers in 33 sparkling minutes. It was only Crawford’s fourth career game with 10 or more assists and the first of those without a turnover.
Crawford has assumed the role of distributor the past four games after Avery Bradley struggled in the point guard role. In the past four games, Crawford is averaging 12.7 points, 5.7 assists, 3 rebounds, and just 1.2 turnovers in 29.7 minutes.
With Rajon Rondo still recovering from a torn right anterior cruciate ligament, the Celtics desperately needed floor leadership, a solid ballhandler, and decision-maker. That has come from Crawford, who wasn’t exactly considered a candidate for such a role when the season began.
With Courtney Lee and MarShon Brooks on the roster, Crawford’s role was undetermined, but coach Brad Stevens gave the shooter an opportunity to become a passer. He seems to enjoy being unselfish, refraining from cranking up those wild jumpers of yesteryear. Rivers repeatedly said that Crawford was difficult to scout because no one — not even Crawford — knew exactly what he would do.
And that wasn’t a compliment. That was a hint to become more consistent or perhaps be out of the league. Crawford has matured quickly here, and that is not lost on him or his teammates.
“Y’all just now noticing that, huh? I was blessed with court vision,” Crawford said. “When a teammate’s open, you find him. I feel that I’m a point guard. That’s other people that listed me at shooting guard.”
That was classic Crawford, still wildly confident, bordering on arrogant. That “best-kept secret in the league” mentality, that bravado that encouraged him to dunk on LeBron James during a Nike camp while he was at Xavier, is sometimes misunderstood.
The Celtics want him to retain that swagger but use it for team, not just personal, good.
“I think it’s more mature,” small forward Jeff Green said of Crawford’s improving game. “I know he had a bad rep coming from the Wizards as a one-way player and now he’s learning the game, playing both ends. He’s bigger than a lot of guards so he can shoot right over them and he has the mentality to turn it on [offensively] when need be. I think he’s learning and picking the spots well.”
Stevens remembers Crawford from Crawford’s one year at Indiana University and made the astute move of only judging him from what he saw instead of scouting reports or whispers from other coaches. Crawford has an impressive skill set but had gotten caught up in trying to make highlight reels and prove that he can score.
The NBA is filled with scorers who ride benches because they can’t do anything else. The league is filled with younger players who have watched too many Michael Jordan tapes and Allen Iverson replays and believe the lone way to impact a game is by scoring.
Those players often get waived, or in Crawford’s case, don’t have their contract options exercised. Perhaps Crawford now realizes his NBA career may be on the line, and free agency could be kind to him after a productive season with the Celtics. Or maybe, with a lot of the aging veterans gone, and a new coach with a fresh approach, Crawford is flourishing in the new environment.
Regardless, this is the Crawford the Hawks and Wizards wanted to see previously.
It’s only a brief sample size, but Crawford’s growth and maturity are encouraging. In this transition season, the Celtics want players to develop and improve and Crawford is learning that his unselfishness is rather refreshing.
“I talked to Jordan [Sunday] on our day off, just on the phone, and told him, ‘Our biggest day is [Monday],’ ” Stevens said. “I said it because we just had something kind of crazy happen, that, to be honest, won’t happen very often, we snuck out of there [Miami] with a win, but we need to see how we respond to that. So it’s a positive [for him] to respond in this way.”Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gwashNBAGlobe.