When it comes to stellar on-ball defense, the immediate though that comes to most college basketball fans and/or scouts, is Aaron Craft. The 6’2 junior continually gets praise and is hailed by almost every college basketball analyst that does Ohio State games. From a personal standpoint, I concur, as I’ve watched Craft play since his freshman season in high school at Liberty-Benton (OH).
Craft’s lateral quickness is off the charts; odd, since his foot speed is just slightly above average. His technique of focusing on the opponent’s stomach and keeping his arms extended only amplify his ability to intensely stick on the players he is guarding. He has been able to neutralize some of the key point guards in the Big Ten (Trey Burke and Keith Appling), and with the Buckeyes’ inconsistent offensive output, he has been as instrumental in Ohio State’s success as any other player.
The career steals leader at Ohio State, an honor he captured mid-season, he currently ranks second in the Big Ten with 1.9 steals per game. Official records are not kept on deflections, rushed shots, or forced turnovers, but watching Craft play, you have a sense that he would be amongst the league leaders in those categories too.
Craft has been the Buckeye’s primary point guard since his freshman season, and his skill do not just wrest on the defensive end. He is one of the better ball-handlers and distributors in college basketball, ranking second in the conference with 4.7 assists per game and fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5).
The one part of Craft’s game that has not improved as most believed, is his shooting. Despite being a high-scorer in high school, he has had the luxury of playing alongside elite college scorers during his career (Jared Sullinger, William Buford, and Deshaun Thomas), and has not been asked to score much. Things changed for the 2012-13 season, as the Ohio State lost Sullinger to the NBA and Buford to graduation.
Buckeye coaches altered Craft’s shooting mechanics during fall practice, trying to get his elbow in and extending the ball more out-front, hoping to improve his accuracy from long-range. It has taken some time for him to get confident with his shot, and though his 9.2 scoring average is slightly higher than it was last season (8.8 ppg), his perimeter shooting percentage is down and he has not been that reliable second or third consistent scorer that Ohio State so badly needs. Furthermore, he has been less effective as a finisher around the rim, despite his aggressive drives to the hoop. To his credit, his past inconsistencies from the free throw line have improved immensely, as he ranks second in the Big Ten with an 81.7% FT%.
Craft most certainly will return to Ohio State for his senior season, if not to improve his basketball further, but to graduate as well. He is a tremendous student and individual, preparing to go to medical school when he graduates. I’m often asked, “Can Craft play in the NBA?” My first response is, “does he want to?” (i.e., if he sets his mind and desire to do it, he will) I smirk at the thought of Craft guarding a player like Russell Westbrook and getting in his grill immediately after tip-off and never relenting. Whether his game translates to the next level is up to the NBA scouts and front office personnel. While there are certainly things that he needs to work on, I would not put it past him.
After the Indiana/Michigan titanic struggle, it may be hard to duplicate that kind of drama/hype, but this week’s Big Ten slate gives us more excellent match-ups. Michigan tries to avenge its first loss of the season, hosting Ohio State on Feb 5. Other key games include Minnesota @ Michigan State on Feb 6, Michigan @ Wisconsin on Feb 9, and two great Sunday (Feb 10) contests (Indiana @ Ohio State and Illinois @ Minnesota).
Big Ten Power Rankings
1. Indiana 2. Michigan 3. Michigan State 4. Ohio State 5. Minnesota 6. Wisconsin 7. Illinois 8. Purdue 9. Iowa 10. Northwestern 11. Nebraska 12. Penn State
Deric McKamey is a scout and correspondent for NetScouts Basketball and covers the Big Ten.