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Aaron Craft is an integral part of the Buckeyes this season and is reviving critical acclaim for his tenacious defensive ability. He's clearly a great college point guard, but could he legitimately take his talents to the NBA?
Aaron Craft's status as an excellent college point guard is beyond debate. He's quarterbacking a top 15 team in perhaps the toughest conference in the country, and his defensive ability has vaulted him to award watch lists across the country. When he graduates, Craft will have an argument for being the best point guard in Ohio State history.
Craft has mentioned several times that he plans to go to medical school after his playing days are done. The question is, will that be right after graduation, or does he have a chance to play in the NBA?
There are two primary concerns about Craft's NBA potential. One, the guy looks more like a doctor than a prototypical NBA guard. While Craft isn't really a small prospect (he's listed at 6'2, while the NBA average for point guards is only 6-1), he certainly doesn't possess the elite athletic ability needed to overlook other flaws in his game. Craft actually has excellent lateral quickness (the correct sportswriter cliche would be deceptively athletic, which just means he's a white guy that can actually move faster than Greg Ostertag), but his explosive ability or open court speed certainly won't blow anybody away.
The other, perhaps more obvious concern, is with his scoring ability. Despite playing on a team that, in case you haven't heard, badly needs a reliable secondary scoring option, Craft has been unable to shoot. He's only shooting 38% from the floor this season and 31% from the floor. While he's shown that he can be more efficient when he's lower usage (he shot 50% from the floor last year with 2 fewer field goal attempts per game), he's never been a reliable jump or three point shooter.
Craft has hit double figures in four of his last five games thanks to him largely eschewing jump shots in favor of attacking the basket. That may be effective at Ohio State, but given his other athletic limitations, it's unlikely to project well to the NBA.
Defenders of Craft point out that there are lots of players in the NBA who can't shoot, but keep roster spots because of their excellence at other facets of the game. Perhaps the most common contemporary example is Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen, one of the most feared on-ball defenders in the NBA. Jason Kidd will go to the hall of fame despite being unable to shoot for much of his career. Ben Wallace may be a hall of famer as well, even though many of us could probably beat him in HORSE. There are certainly other possible examples.
Comparing Craft to Allen, Kidd, Bruce Bowen, etc rings a little hollow though, given the collegiate production of many of the current NBA-ers. Kidd was an All-American at Cal that averaged 15 points and over 8 assists for his career. Tony Allen averaged over 15 points a game in his career at Oklahoma State. Bruce Bowen averaged 16.3 points at Cal State Fullerton. Craft has never averaged double digit points over a season, and he while he is a more than capable rebounder and passer, he isn't slapping up 8 dimes a game on a regular basis. Craft's inability to dominate college-level defenders does not bode well for his ability to suddenly learn to score against elite NBA level competition.
That doesn't mean there isn't precedent for a player similar to Craft's skill set succeeding in the NBA for a long time. Consider the NBA career of Eric Snow.
Snow's career stats at Michigan State were somewhat pedestrian. Over his 113 game career, he only averaged 5.9 PPG, 2.6 RPG, and 5.3 AP, certainly nothing that screamed, "TREMENDOUS UPSIDE". His Spartans squad was awarded a #3 seed in the tourney his senior year, only to be upset by Weber State. He was picked up in the mid second round largely on the strength of his excellent on-ball defensive ability and passing vision.
Snow stuck around the NBA for 14 years, bouncing from Seattle to Philadelphia to Cleveland. He never really learned to shoot, (his career high from 3 was 29%), or score (career high at 12.9 ppg, mostly since the Iverson era Philly teams were starved for secondary scoring) . He did make the All-Defensive second team in 2003 and averaged over a steal a game. Snow's jump shooting was so terrible that he would warrant sarcastic cheers from the Cleveland crowd if he hit a layup, but his other skills were good enough to keep a spot in the rotation.
Aaron Craft is a better scorer than Eric Snow, although he isn't as good of a playmaker/passer. Craft is also a hard enough worker and a smart enough player that he may not necessarily be a finished product. While I don't think he'll ever be a double digit scorer in the NBA, it isn't unreasonable to think that with enough practice and access to NBA coaching, he could be around a 32% three point shooter. That is just good enough to not make him a total offensive liability, and justify keeping him on the court.
I don't think Craft is likely to be an NBA star, and he'll have to continue to develop his passing ability and spot shooting to help his draft prospects. His defensive ability, his toughness, durability and intangibles makes me think that if Craft wants a shot at the NBA, he'll certainly be able to get it. Assuming his continues to grow next season, I think a mid-to-late second round selection isn't out of the realm of possibilities for Craft.
The longevity of his career will depend a lot on fit and a bit of luck, but after watching Craft develop over the past few years, I certainly wouldn't want to bet against him.