"Easily discouraged" is not a phrase anyone would use to describe Aaron Craft. It's been an uphill battle for the former Ohio State floor general to get any respect, at every level. As the Las Vegas Summer League gets underway, Craft will once again showcase his talents in an effort to nab an NBA roster spot.
In Craft's short professional career, he has had to face a fair amount of adversity. He knows exactly what kind of player he is, and is very effective in his role, but time and time again he is looked at as not being good enough. After going undrafted in the 2014 Draft, Craft played for two different teams during summer league: Philadelphia in Orlando and Golden State in Las Vegas. It was with the Warriors that Craft really turned heads. Though he saw the court for just 22 minutes per game, Craft managed 2.6 steals per game and turned in efficient shooting splits (especially for him) of 45/33/82. Despite his strong play in summer league, Craft didn't end up making the Warriors' final roster. Considering how loaded Golden State's roster turned out to be, it's not too surprising in retrospect that Craft didn't make the cut.
Craft signed with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the D-League affiliate of the Warriors. He then provided leadership and his trademark toughness to help propel the Warriors to the D-League title. Craft led the team in minutes (36.1) and steals (2.5) per game and stuffed the stat sheet with 9.2 points, 6.2 assists, and 4.9 rebounds per game. By once again proving his worth as a fantastic on-ball defender and general pest, Craft was named the D-League's Defensive Player of the Year. But it was some of Craft's teammates and former adversaries who made the leap to the next level. James Michael McAdoo and Ognjen Kuzmic were recalled to Golden State after Santa Cruz won the D-League title; Craft was overlooked once again. Tim Frazier, a former Penn State guard who Craft largely shut down during their college days, was named D-League MVP and was called up by the Blazers, likely adding to Craft's frustration.
Given Craft's unique skill set, a question arises: is it possible to make a living in the NBA with only one elite skill? Craft's elite skill is his defense, and everyone who has watched him play notices this quickly. After it was announced that Craft had won the Defensive Player of the Year Award, Santa Cruz Coach Casey Hill had this to say: "Aaron is one of the soundest defenders I've ever been around and without a doubt he deserves this award. He has been phenomenal for our team all season long and it has been amazing to coach him."
Only having one elite skill can be turned into an NBA career, and one needs to look no further than long-distance specialists like Steve Novak and Matt Bonner to see proof of that. But Craft's aversion to making outside shots is a big issue. There are a fair number of point guards out there who struggle with their shot, but just about all of them bring something else to the table offensively. Ricky Rubio is an extremely imaginative passer, and it's going to be incredibly entertaining to watch him go to work with all the young athletes on Minnesota's roster this year. Michael Carter-Williams and Elfrid Payton are above-average passers and exceptional slashers. Craft is a good passer, but that's par for the course in the NBA. Teams are always looking for defensive help, especially on the perimeter, but Craft needs to improve his offense at least marginally to earn a spot on an NBA roster.
This summer has not been without its share of struggles already for Craft. He has been dealing with a toe injury, and didn't end up playing for Charlotte in the Orlando Summer League. He'll suit up for Golden State in Las Vegas alongside former college stars like Michael Frazier, Chasson Randle, and everyone's favorite Uber driver, Matt Stainbrook. There he will continue to chase the dream that has so far eluded him, to receive a spot on an NBA roster. If there's someone Craft can look to for inspiration, as a rugged, hard-nosed defender that most people wrote off, it's Matthew Dellavedova. Craft even made this comparison himself: "A guy like Dellavedova, who had great success at the highest level, is someone I definitely think I can play very similar to."
Again, Craft is perpetually fighting an uphill battle to make it to the NBA, but with his tenacious work ethic, he may not be too far away from achieving his goal.