Freshman point guard Aaron Craft is quickly becoming a favorite player among Buckeye Nation. Before his OSU career is over, he might become as popular among Ohio State shooty hoops fans as the legendary Jay Burson, although it probably won’t be for his singing voice. Craft is affable, energetic, a shut-down defender and a capable scorer who can give the Buckeyes an offensive lift when his teammates are cold.
Like Burson, Craft is a baby-faced assassin, with the ability to hit a big 3-pointer. But where Burson was a pure scorer, sometimes to the point of ignoring open teammates in favor of taking a contested runner or jump shot, Craft is a playmaker that runs Thad Matta’s offense and looks for the best available option the defense will give him.
Craft is becoming less shy about trusting his shot, and sometimes even looks for it, but he is still primarily an offensive quarterback. Craft is an excellent passer, has great court vision and looks to pass first. He can also penetrate the defense on the dribble, forcing movement and opening up his outside shooters or dishing to his bigs inside. Some of his most spectacular plays have come from driving through the paint along the baseline and whipping a pass back outside the arc to set up Jon Diebler, David Lighty or William Buford for an open 3-point shot.
Defensively, Craft is a pest who can smother his opponent, even a larger one. Against Illinois, the kid shut down point guard Demetri McCamey. The Illini’s leading scorer finished well below his season average, scoring only five points on 2-of-11 shooting. McCamey also turned the ball over four times against only five assists, and committed three personal fouls. Clearly, Craft’s defense affected the senior Illinois point.
With the sudden quickness of a mongoose striking a cobra’s neck, Craft is adept at swiping the ball and igniting the break. Only six games into his first Big Ten season, Craft equaled the second-highest single-game steals mark in OSU history, robbing the Iowa Hawkeyes seven times in just 25 minutes played. Only Troy Taylor’s eight steals against St. Josephs in December of 1983 topped that feat. Kelvin Ransey is the only other Buckeye to post as many steals in a conference game. Ransey stole seven balls in February of 1978 against Minnesota. Burson, the all-time OSU steals leader, averaged 51 per season over four years. Craft has 36 already in 21 games during his rookie campaign, so a strong finish in that category will put him on pace to break that mark if he hangs around Columbus through his senior year.
Craft’s minutes per game have increased since conference play began, from 26.1 per game to 31.3. A small part of this may have been due to Dallas Lauderdale foul trouble, but Matta is also relying on the freshman for better offensive distribution than Buford, Lighty or Diebler can provide. Matta also depends on Craft’s defense. These days Craft usually gets into the game at the first timeout, where he once saw action before the under-12 TV timeout only if someone was in foul trouble.
The freshman has picked it up on the offensive end since the Big Ten slate began. In conference play, Craft is averaging 8.4 points per game, compared to only 5.3 in 13 non-conference outings. His 3-point percentage has improved from 41% in the non-conference slate to 45.5% since league play began. His total field goal percentage has dropped from 53% to 41%, but that is largely a product of stronger competition and a higher percentage of his attempts in Big Ten play coming from beyond the 3-point line. Before Big Ten play, 46.8% of Craft’s shots came from 3-point range. Before the Purdue game, which was a bit of a statistical aberration, 52.6% of his shots in conference play came from downtown. Against the Boilers, only two of his 11 shots came from behind the line, his lowest percentage in conference play.
The physical nature of Big Ten play can take its toll on anyone. There are no Tennessee-Martins or North Carolina A&Ts in the conference. Craft’s assist-to-turnover ratio has slipped from 2.52 to 1.7 and he’s committing 3.5 fouls per game compared to his former two fouls per contest. The turnovers weren’t helped by three miscues at the sloppy, garbage-time end of the Purdue game, and the fouls can partly be attributed to increased playing time. Still, given that this is Craft’s first taste of Big Ten play, these are not numbers that should concern anyone.
Craft will continue to evolve as a player, as he gets a second look at some of the competition he’s facing (of course, the flip side of that is that teams will also have had a chance to see him once). With only 21 collegiate games under his belt, Craft is learning on the job. With Craft’s basketball IQ, he will take mental notes about the mistakes he’s making now and limit them in the future.
My immediate concern is that the transition from high school to the Big Ten is a steep one, and it remains to be seen if Craft will wear down or “hit the wall” before the postseason. Buford, Lighty and Diebler must get more defensive stops and distribute the ball better in order to help Matta manage Craft’s minutes and save his legs for the postseason. There’s no telling how far the Buckeyes can go this year, but wherever they end up, Craft will be vital in getting there.