Torrey Craig’s NBA path is anything but typical. Undrafted in 2014, he spent three seasons in Australia before the 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement instituted the new Two-Way contract, giving players like him a chance to prove themselves in the league. It was all Craig needed to show that he belonged, performing well in 39 games with the Denver Nuggets that year and hitting free agency that summer after his contract ran out. The next year, he signed a two-year deal worth $4 million, which will expire this season and make him one of the rare players in NBA history to go through restricted free agency twice. Whether it’s fair that the 29-year-old Craig is subject to restricted free agency at all is a discussion for another day, but unless the NBA and NBPA substantially change those rules between now and whenever the offseason starts, the Nuggets will have full match rights on any contract offer he gets from another team.
As Craig ventures into the uncertain waters of free agency once again, it is worth taking stock of where he is as a player, what he brings to the table for a team, and what his market may look like when free agency does eventually kick off.
Nothing about Craig’s numbers will woo a team into giving him significant money. His career 12.2 percent usage rate speaks for itself – he’s the sixth offensive option in a game with only five players. To his credit, he rarely tries to work outside of his comfort zone on that end of the floor. You won’t catch him stopping the ball on the perimeter to take a few dribbles and size up his guy. Per Synergy, he has run a total of 48 pick-and-rolls across 164 games in his three years with the Nuggets. His offensive role primarily comes down to three actions: space the floor, make opportunistic cuts to the rim, and be a nuisance on the offensive glass.
Spacing the floor is the most important thing a perimeter role player can do these days. Craig is really poor in this area – he’s a career 32 percent three-point shooter and is treated as such by defenses. It’s not as if these are off-the-dribble jumpers in pick-and-roll, either; almost all of Craig’s threes are set up by a teammate. There isn’t anything glaringly wrong with his mechanics, but the ball just has not gone in for him throughout his NBA career. More harmful to his team is the fact that defenses know that he’s a poor shooter and shift their personnel accordingly, leaving him open in favor of sending extra help at Nikola Jokic or Jamal Murray.
Spacing isn’t just tied to shooting percentages from deep. How a player moves along the perimeter to complement his teammates can have a big effect on how defenses react to him and the space he gives his teammates as a result. Craig’s spacing and offensive awareness without the ball leave a lot to be desired. Too often, he’s out of position and not ready for the ball to come to him on the perimeter, which is made worse by the fact that he plays next to perhaps the best passing big man in the league’s history. Jokic will hit him with no-look dimes that catch him by surprise and lead to a rushed and off-balance shot attempt:
In some ways, Craig’s spacing is a function of Denver’s overall offensive strategy. The Nuggets like to clear out an entire side of the floor for Jokic to work, which will sometimes leave two non-shooters in Craig and Jerami Grant to hang out together on the weak side. One will usually occupy the corner, while the other floats around the dunker spot, crashing for offensive rebounds or quick cuts to the rim. Craig’s a good cutter in these situations and does his job finding space right under the basket when his man steps up to help on Jokic’s meandering, Boris Diaw-esque drives to the rim. However, there are too many plays, like the one above, in which Craig is in no man’s land and not ready for Jokic to throw him the ball.
That same awareness issues don’t show up when he’s cutting to the rim. Craig has a great sense of timing and spacing in those tight windows under the rim and will find little holes in the defense to get easy dumpoffs for layups.
He possesses good touch on finishes around the rim with both hands, though it’s curious that he’s a better and more natural finisher with his left hand, despite being a right-handed player in every other part of his game. I wouldn’t imagine there’s a Tristan Thompson-esque shooting hand change in his future, but his level of ambidexterity is impressive for a guy who rarely has the ball in his hands.
Every once in a while, Craig will see an opportunity to attack in semi-transition and flash some of his ball skills. He’s not as utterly hopeless with the ball in his hands as many defense-first, offense-never perimeter players are and when he does put the ball on the floor, he can make things happen for himself and his teammates. He has good vision and touch on his passes, whether on the move or from a standstill:
The second clip shows off one of Denver’s favorite inbounds plays (and a favorite across the league the last few years – I went through in November 2018 and found that 20 of the league’s 30 teams ran a similar inbounds play on most of their sideline-out-of-bounds sets), which they’ll run through Craig at the opposite elbow if he’s in the game. He doesn’t often get a chance to show off his passing, but when the ball runs through him and he’s asked to make the right read, he’s better than you’d expect. In the clip above, he throws the pass to a cutting Grant before Grant is truly open, as an example of his vision and ability to read the game.
The final part of his offensive game that stands out is his ability to get in on the offensive glass. He’s an elite offensive rebounder for his position, though it certainly helps that defenses are often not paying much attention to him. It’s a lot easier for Craig to sneak in on the offensive glass when his guy is off helping on any of the other four Nuggets on the floor. Still, it’s a plus that Craig can bring to the table for a team, and he’ll create a couple of extra buckets each game with opportunistic dives to the rim.
And even when his guy is between him and the rim, sometimes Craig will just go right through him. Check out how he muscles Jrue Holiday out of the way on the way to the rim:
On the other end of the floor, Craig’s game is far from muted. He’s one of Denver’s primary point of attack defenders whenever he’s on the floor, harassing lead guards as they bring the ball up the floor and generally throwing mud on everything opposing offenses are trying to do. He’s aggressive, has long arms and quick feet, and plays with intense effort and focus defensively, whether he’s on the ball in pick-and-roll or rotating out of the weak-side corner to help protect the rim.
Denver’s particular defensive scheme is different than most around the league. The Nuggets employ an aggressive, versatile pick-and-roll scheme in the halfcourt, often pushing their bigs up the floor and into the ballhandler’s face, in an attempt to dissuade him from turning the corner and attacking downhill. What this means for Craig is that his mark absolutely must use the screen and go toward the defensive big man – if the ball handler is allowed to reject the screen, there is no help at the rim and the Nuggets are very likely giving up a great shot.
This is a perfect example of how Denver wants Craig to defend in pick-and-roll. With strong communication from Jokic, Craig knows Nerlens Noel is going to set the screen to his left. Rather than fighting over the screen early, as so many guards around the league do these days, Craig opens his hips to that side, inviting Dennis Schröder to use the screen and run into Jokic.
Once Craig influences Schröder to use the screen, it’s up to Jokic to read the ball and his man and either press up aggressively or drop to the rim. In this instance, he drops off and Schröder hits the pull-up 2, but that’s exactly the sort of shot the Nuggets (and every other team in the league) wants opponents to shoot.
Compare Craig’s technique with Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe is a lot more physical than Craig at the point of the screen, safe in the knowledge that one of the Lopez twins is always going to be right under the rim if he gets beat, no matter which direction the ball handler goes:
In this clip, Charlotte is trying to run a stack pick-and-roll (also known as a Spain pick-and-roll, depending on whom you ask), but Lopez sees it coming and stays very deep, barely even leaving the restricted area before Devonte’ Graham puts up his fadeaway jumper. At the point of attack, Bledsoe sees Bismack Biyombo’s screen coming before he arrives, which allows Bledsoe to get over the screen and force Graham away from it. You’ll rarely see Denver’s guards do this – they want the opposing ball handler to use the screen, where Jokic or whoever is manning the middle for the Nuggets is waiting.
In this clip, Bledsoe locks into Malcolm Brogdon as the screen arrives and trails him over the top of the screen, pushing Brogdon to dribble into the paint, where Brook Lopez awaits. Lopez was never higher up the floor than the free throw line and actively drops off as Brogdon drives at him, allowing the mid-range floater, one of the least efficient shots in the game.
The Nuggets faced a similar set of staggered ball screens in a December game against the Thunder, but watch how differently Craig defends at the point of attack:
As the first screen arrives, Craig already has his hips open, persuading Chris Paul to use the screens. Jokic is further up the floor, awaiting Paul on the other side. After an initial press, Craig never makes contact with Paul the rest of the play – he does his job by ensuring that Paul uses the screens and drives into the teeth of the defense. From there, the rest of the Nuggets’ scheme takes over: Craig chases from behind, Jokic contains Paul’s drive, Grant rotates down to a rolling Steven Adams, and Murray plays a zone on the weak side, effectively defending both Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the same time. When Paul tries to hit Gallinari in the corner, Murray is right there for the steal. From Craig through to all of his teammates, this is perfect pick-and-roll defense, as far as the Nuggets’ coaching staff is concerned.
Craig’s defensive intelligence and ability to execute Denver’s scheme extends to his off-ball work. Watch how Craig rotates early to Noel and removes any possibility of Schröder throwing the pocket pass:
Denver’s personnel consistency, from the front office to the coaching staff to the players, has a lot to do with their ability to play a scheme that relies on everyone to communicate and do their jobs properly. The downside of a scheme that includes a lot of moving parts is that when one cog jams, the whole machine falls apart:
Michael Porter Jr. is the low man on the weak side in the above clip, but unlike Craig, he doesn’t rotate early to deter the pocket pass to Adams. The result wasn’t pretty for the rookie and shows how the Nuggets’ scheme can fall apart if one player isn’t doing his job. To be fair, that isn’t exactly a rarity around the league; most defensive schemes fall apart unless all five guys are locked in on what they have to do. Denver’s is likely more susceptible than most because it involves more moving parts, however.
Given Craig’s size, athleticism, and basketball IQ, it’s likely that he wouldn’t have much trouble adapting to a new scheme, should he change teams this offseason. The biggest question might be whether he could handle a physical scheme like Milwaukee’s, as we haven’t seen him do much of that during his time in Denver, but there’s the rest of his defensive skillset should travel with him no matter where he goes. That physicality question shows up on the defensive glass as well, where he’s a mediocre rebounder too often not willing to mix it up. All in all, he has the well-rounded game on that end of the floor to be a difference maker defensively for any team.
How Craig’s offensive shortcomings and defensive strengths manifest themselves in the team-building process is an interesting conundrum for the Nuggets and any other team looking to sign him to their roster. His play around the rim as a cutter and offensive rebounder fits naturally with big men who can shoot from outside – otherwise, the paint is too crowded to succeed in today’s NBA. Craig’s size makes it difficult to play him at the 4 full-time, particularly when his best defensive role is at the point of attack. Playing him at the 3 gets congested offensively, but allows a team to throw out some strong defensive lineups and helps with defensive rebounding.
An older, defense-first restricted free agent, a good comparison for Craig’s market this summer might be Dorian Finney-Smith, who was restricted last year and signed a three-year, $12 million deal to remain with the Dallas Mavericks. Finney-Smith was just 26 when he re-signed with the Mavs, but a team signing Craig to his next contract should still have him at his athletic peak for a few more seasons. As I outlined in my offseason wrap-up last year, defense is not the path to a big payday for most players, and Craig is even more limited offensively than Finney-Smith was this time last year. Combine that with an even weaker market in terms of spending power and Craig might be looking at a smaller deal than Finney-Smith signed. Denver isn’t quite in the same financial position as Dallas was in 2019, particularly with the unknowns surrounding the pandemic, but they have enough financial flexibility to tender his qualifying offer and see what Craig’s market looks like before committing to bringing him back or letting him walk.
A Finney-Smith-like investment in Craig might be an overpay initially, but a team could talk themselves into developing his offensive repertoire enough to be slightly more useful offensive player – if he could even drive a closeout, that would give him an added dimension that would at least make defenders think about having to guard him. The defense is already there; he can guard any perimeter player in the league and is a terror at the point of attack – a team with offensive studs at other positions should heavily consider investing in him to shore up their defense in the hopes that any offensive development is still possible.