Season in Review: A breakout season for Torrey Craig

Denver Nuggets forward Torrey Craig (3) drives with the ball in the second half against the Utah Jazz at the Pepsi Center.
Nov 3, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Torrey Craig (3) drives with the ball in the second half against the Utah Jazz at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Just three seasons ago, Torrey Craig was playing professional basketball in Australia for the Brisbane Bullets of the NBL.

This came after a successful four-year collegiate career at South Carolina Upstate in which Craig was named Atlantic Sun Player of the Year in 2012. Craig’s solid career in college earned him a spot in the NBL with the Cairns Taipans.

After winning MVP of the National Basketball League in 2015 with the Taipans, Craig moved on to play with the Wellington Saints for two years, one of which ended — the 2016 season — in a championship. He finished out his NBL career with the Brisbane Bullets before the Nuggets gave him an opportunity to play on their Summer League team in 2017.

Craig impressed the Nuggets enough in Summer League that he earned a two-way contract, which gave him an opportunity to bounce back and fourth between the G-League and the NBA during his rookie season. Craig proceeded to use up all of his 45 days with the Nuggets — a restriction that comes with being a two-way contract player — before the season had ended. That was enough to earn a second contract, which ended up being a two-year, $4 million deal.

Even though Craig was on a two-way contract during his rookie season, he still appeared in 39 games and started five of them. Craig’s averages of 4.2 points and 3.3 rebounds per game were nothing that jumped off the page, but they were the start of what tuned into a breakout 2018-19 season.

In his second season with the Nuggets, Craig proved why Denver took a chance on him just two years ago. He played in 75 regular season games (37 starts) and all 14 postseason match-ups (11 starts).

After playing just 16.1 minutes per game during his rookie season, Craig bumped that number up an even 20 during his sophomore campaign, while also finding a way to improve in almost every single statistical category.

Whether it was his points (5.7), rebounds (3.5), or assists (1.0), Craig found a way to improve in a number of ways this past season. Shooting played a big role in Craig’s improvement as he shot over 50 percent from two-point range, 32 percent from three, and 44 percent from the field. Craig also shot 70 percent from the free-throw line, which was a career-high and up eight percent from his rookie season. 

Craig found a way to improve in a number of ways offensively while still providing his consistent solid play on the defensive end of the floor. Not only did Craig bring energy and effort every night, but he also found a way to become more of a weapon on the offensive end of the floor as well.

Ways Craig improved this past season

A more consistent threat from three-point range 

It makes it easier to leave Craig on the floor with his new found ability to score the ball, which has a lot to do with his development as a three-point shooter. After a rookie season in which he shot just 29 percent from distance, Craig bumped that number up to 32 percent in 2018-19.

Three percentage points does not seem like a huge rise, but how does 15 more percentage points sound? Something like 47.2 percent. Sounds better, right? Well, that is what Torrey Craig shot from three-point range in the postseason. Craig made 17 of the 36 three-pointers he attempted in the postseason and made a career-high 61 triples in the regular season.

This might be the craziest stat of them all. Craig led the Nuggets in three-point shooting from the All-Star break through the regular season. After shooting just 29.5 percent from distance between October 17th — opening night — and February 13th — final game before All-Star Break — Craig shot a scorching 40 percent from three to close the regular season.

That means, from the time the All-Star break ended until the postseason came to a close for the Nuggets, Craig shot 85 3-pointers and made 37 of them which equates to Craig hitting 43.5% of his triples over the last 37 games of the season, 14 of which were in the playoffs.

Craig consistently got better from three-point range as the season went on and the Nuggets’ offense benefited because of it. The effort and intensity that Craig provided Denver on the defensive end of the floor goes without saying, but when he has his offense rolling as well, his value to the Nuggets becomes even more dangerous.

Toughness and a will to win 

“Tor-rey, Tor-rey, Tor-rey.”

That is what you would have heard from the Pepsi Center faithful if you were at or watched the Game 2 matchup between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. Chants reigned down for Craig after he returned to the game from a gruesome looking nasal contusion earlier in the night.

Even with blood rushing from his nose and the game having to be halted numerous times to fix it, Craig was not going anymore. Games like that are what show the type of player and person Torrey Craig is — a warrior. Some guys might have turned it in for the night after taking a shot to the face, but not Craig.

“I think Torrey Craig is the unsung hero from the game,” Malone said after Game 2. “That guy has got some balls. He’s got toughness. I’ll go to war with that kid any day.”

Craig is a player you certainly would want on your side when going into battle. He played through a number of injuries this past season and refused to quit anyway. Whether it was a shoulder sprain or the flu, Craig played through injuries, including the nasal contusion he suffered in the Portland series.

Even when you thought Craig’s injuries were done, he suffered a dislocated pinky in the Nuggets Game 7 game against Portland and preceded to pop it back in himself. Craig played the rest of the game with it because of course he did.

That is just who he is.

A lockdown defender that is a nightmare matchups for opposing teams 

This is quite possibly Craig’s greatest and most valuable trait. Whether it is Russell Westbrook one night or Kawhi Leonard the next, you can bet that Craig wants a piece of all of them on the defensive end of the court.

Almost all season long, you saw Craig matched up against the opposing teams best player, and that was put on full display in the postseason. After Will Barton struggled in the first three games of the San Antonio series, the Nuggets made a switch and inserted Craig into the starting lineup.

While Gary Harris took on the challenge of trying to slow down Derrick White — who had been killing the Nuggets all series — Craig was tasked with guarding four-time NBA All-Star DeMar DeRozan. In the first three games of the series with Barton was mostly guarding DeRozan, he was the Spurs leading scorer averaging 24.7 points per game.

After the Nuggets switched Craig onto DeRozan in Game 4, he averaged just 20 points the remainder of the series as he virtually shut down the Spurs best scorer. Even though DeRozan still shot an efficient 49 percent from the field with Craig as the primary defender, life was certainly tougher for one of San Antonio’s best players. Moments and a series like that just show the value that Craig brings to this team defensively.

Ways Craig can still improve: 

This category is much harder than the last one considering how much Craig improved this past season. With the strides his game took offensively, it is hard to knock his growth on that end of the floor. Still, there are some areas where Craig can continue to grow as he enters his third season in a Nuggets uniform.

Continue to grow offensively 

Craig’s growth as a three-point shooter was undoubtedly one of his strengths this past season, but that does not mean he can not continue to grow his offensive repertoire going into next season. One area that did not improve statistically this past season was Craig’s field goal percentage, which was down one point (44 percent) from his rookie season.

If Craig could bump that number up to over 50 percent next season, his points per game totals could see a huge rise from where they were each of his first two seasons in the league. The best way to do that is to improve his ability to make shots in catch-and-shoot situations.

According to synergy’s statistics (which can be admittedly noisy), Craig is in the 23rd percentile in catch-and-shoot situations. That means that 77% of all NBA players are more efficient when shooting off the catch. Simply stated, that needs to change.

When Craig is on the floor — particularly with the starting group — he is the offensive threat that opposing teams are going to allow to get open. Craig is the least-established offensive player in the Nuggets rotation so opponents will be ok letting Craig take open shots if it means that they can double Nikola Jokic or throw multiple bodies his way.

If Craig can start to knock down his shots off the catch, it will not only make him a significantly more potent offensive player, but also would allow the rest of his game to shine. Craig has the ability to drive in a straight line and finish at the rim if he is attacking closeouts.

If he can start hitting his open shots off the catch more frequently, teams will be forced to close out on him which will just give him more advantages to use against the opposing defense.

Play defense without fouling 

Allowing the opposing team to score free points is almost the worst thing you can do and it is something Craig struggled with this past season. In his rookie year, Craig committed 3.6 fouls per 36 minutes and that number increased to 4.2 fouls per game this past season. 

It is tough for Craig to make a difference for the Nuggets when he is off the floor, which goes hand in had with fouling. Craig also had six games this past season of at least five fouls and eight games of four fouls. When you have that many fouls, it is tough for Malone to leave Craig on the floor.

Still, this is much easier said than done for Craig. He is often tasked with guarding the opposing teams’ best player on a nightly basis, which can lead to a lot of fouls. Whether it is having to sit for elongated periods of time or being disqualified from the game completely, Craig has to find a way to be available to help his team, which is accomplished by staying on the court.

Final Grade 

A

Craig gets a final grade of an A for everything he did to help the Nuggets succeed this past season. Whether it was filling in the starting lineup when his name was called or just knocking down an open three-point jumper; Craig had a coming out party this past season.

The toughness and passion Craig plays with makes him one of the Nuggets most important players on the roster. His passion and will to win was on full display during the postseason..

If Craig can continue to grow, there is absolutely no doubt he is going to help the Nuggets succeed not just next season, but maybe for many years to come.

If you want to read the rest of the Season in Review pieces for other players, click on their name below:

Jamal Murray | Monte Morris | Isaiah Thomas | Gary Harris

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