Ohio State's Aaron Craft: Man of Steal
How does the average fan measure how good a player is? The box score. It's not like you can watch every single game during college basketball's long season. So most people simply look at the stats — points, rebounds, and assists — to determine who's a star and who isn't.15
But if you just follow the stats, then you're missing out on the greatness of Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft. The junior is the best point guard in the nation, an elite defender who could push the Buckeyes to a national title. But, through January 21, he was averaging just 8.7 points per game, tied for 1,053rd in the nation. And he doled out just 4.7 assists per game; 79 players had dished out more. So how can Craft possibly be considered great? You have to watch a game and see Craft work.
Craft plays defense with the same mentality that most players have on offense: attack, attack, attack. But first he has to know who he's attacking. He spends hours studying film of opposing point guards. He knows where they're going, and he gets there first.
"All good players have patterns and go-to moves," he says. "The great ones have more than one. As a defender you go through ways to take them out of their rhythm and force them to their second or third option."
In December, he held Long Beach State point guard Mike Caffey, a rising star, to four points on 1 of 11 shooting in an easy Buckeyes win.
"Craft is as good a defender on the ball as I've seen," said Long Beach State coach Dan Monson, who has also coached at Minnesota and Gonzaga.
Craft stays in front of his man and smothers him with pressure.
"I try not to use my hands at all," Craft says. "A five-second call, a timely charge — you get steals and turnovers with your feet."
The stat sheet says that Craft averages 1.9 steals per game, good for third in the Big Ten. But that only tells a small part of the story. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer Luke Winn has watched every defensive possession for Ohio State this year. When you factor in offensive fouls Craft has drawn, or things like bad passes forced, Craft was single-handedly causing more than 3.5 turnovers per game through January 17.
WORKING TO PERFECTION
Part of Craft's defensive skills are his quickness and strength. (In high school, he used to practice his defensive slides while holding a brick in each hand.) But a lot of it comes from his best attribute: competitiveness.
Craft wants to be the best in everything he does. While at Liberty-Benton High School in Findlay, Ohio, a teacher once told Craft's class that no one from the school had ever gotten a perfect score on Ohio's state competency test in math. So Craft spent extra hours prepping. He got a perfect score.
As a junior in high school, there was a Rubik's Cube craze at school. The puzzle can frustrate people for hours. There's a YouTube video of Craft finishing it in 65 seconds. He says he can do it in 55.
At Ohio State, Craft has a 3.9 GPA, but got only a B-plus in the first term of General Chemistry. In the second term, he got an A.
"With Aaron around," Buckeyes director of basketball operations David Egelhoff says, "it's like having Google in the room."
Considering his toughness on the court, it's no surprise that Craft has a football background. He was an all-state quarterback and star safety in high school. His father used to be an assistant football coach at another school. His older brother, Brandon, was a Division II linebacker. (His sister, Cait, is a freshman guard on the Ohio State women's basketball team.)
Craft isn't a star offensively, and there's no doubt that he has to improve as a shooter (career-low 32.0% three-point shooting this season). But he does an excellent job managing the Buckeyes' offense, getting the ball to leading scorer Deshaun Thomas and sharpshooter Lenzelle Smith Jr.
"As a quarterback [in football] you're supposed to understand what the other 10 guys should do on every play," says OSU video coordinator Greg Paulus, a former Duke point guard and Syracuse quarterback himself. "Aaron will know not just his guy but all five guys. Show him anything, and he'll remember everything. It's enough to make your head hurt."
It took a little while for Ohio State coaches to warm up to Craft as a recruit because he wasn't a star on offense. Their top recruit that year, current Boston Celtics rookie Jared Sullinger, convinced coaches that Craft was their man. "Jared walked into our office one day and said, 'Offer Aaron a scholarship,' " remembers head coach Thad Matta. "The guys I've had who played football have always had a different mind-set on defense, and Aaron would be the poster child for a basketball player from a football state."
One thing that's true in both sports: You need a great quarterback to win. And in Craft, the Buckeyes have theirs.
Photo by David E. Klutho