Relative to the rest of society, the professional sports world always has had peculiar notions about what it is to be old. It’s why the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady, he of 42 years and six Super Bowl rings, is viewed as a patriarchal quarterback of biblical proportions.
Wise beyond his years, Grizzlies’ Crowder embraces lead role
So, imagine not even being 30 years old and cast in the role of wise old veteran. Memphis forward Jae Crowder is just 29. Which is to say that when Brady won his first Super Bowl in 2002, Crowder was 11 years old.
But here, with this rebuild and as a teammate to 20-year-olds Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, Crowder is a virtual Memphis Methuselah.
“Very weird,” said Crowder, who came to the Grizzlies in the July 6 trade that sent Mike Conley to Utah.
Money drives everything in the NBA, of course, and with Crowder on an expiring $7.8 million contract and much experience playing for playoff teams, he’s likely to have suitors. If not sooner, than later as the February trade deadline approaches.
Given this reality, he could treat his stay in Memphis as something of a purgatorial experience. But he isn’t.
“I believe in the young talent,” said Crowder, who will vie for a starting spot at small forward alongside Morant at point guard, Jackson at power forward, and Jonas Valanciunas at center, and with shooting guard very much up in the air as training camp opens. “Trust me, if I didn’t believe in (the talent), I would have asked not to come here.”
Morant is not the only notable rookie. Taylor Jenkins, 35, is a first-time NBA head coach. He will count on Crowder and others; this includes the even younger “vet” in 23-year-old point guard Tyus Jones, who has four years of NBA experience and gives Morant and the Grizzlies a little protection in the early going.
“The vets are super important to us,” Jenkins said. “They do it in different ways too. Some guys are more vocal than others. Tyus is more, players come to him (or) he seeks them out. . . . Jae may be a little bit more vocal. I’m definitely gonna lean on them a lot.”
For Crowder, this is all circle-of-life stuff.
Selected by Cleveland in the second round of the 2012 NBA Draft out of Marquette, the 6-foot-6 Crowder was quickly traded to the Dallas Mavericks. There, he found a locker room that included respected veterans Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and Elton Brand.
They held nothing back from The Rook. They are, he says, why that on the young side of 30 he can be ready and willing to give whatever he can to help Morant, Jackson and all the other young Grizzlies.
“Who am I to hold anything they taught me?” Crowder said. “That’s selfish of me to hold in what they taught me so, obviously, I want to shed light onto the young players. That’s holding yourself accountable — taking care of your body, eating right, sleeping right.
“Because it starts at ground zero with those guys. Ja’s coming into something where he has no idea what’s coming at him — three games in a week, sometimes back-to-back. There’ll be a lot thrown at him. I just want to make sure he’s at ease.”
Same for Jaren Jackson Jr.
“I’ve been talking to Jaren. I’m an open book,” Crowder said. “Whatever knowledge I have, I want to pass onto him. Any question he asks, I’m willing to give what I think or find someone who can help him out.
“I’m a library to him. I’m open to him any day, anytime. Call me. He’s been doing a good job asking questions.”
Of course, to continue to be heard Crowder will have to contribute — produce and lead by example.
He is coming off a season with Utah in which he averaged 11.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists and shot 33.1% from 3-point range. He launched 522 triples last season, which tied for 13th-most in the league.
For his career, he is a 33.9% shooter from distance, but he did shoot almost 40% in the 2016-17 season with Boston. The previous season, when he started 73 games for the Celtics, he averaged a career-high 14.2 points per game.
“I had the green light the last few years, but I want to get more consistent,” he said of his 3-point marksmanship. “This system fits my game and the style of the NBA now.”
He says his shot has improved from early in his career and that there is nothing overly technical or magical to explain it.
“I’m not even gonna (B.S.) you,” he said, “staying in the gym and when the light’s not on, hold myself accountable, come back to work at night and do the little things I’ve got to do and give myself a chance to grow.”
It is the mindset that he intends to share — over and over and over — with the young players while pushing away thoughts about might happen later: potentially, the fifth trade of his career.
“End of the day, wherever I’m at, I’m gonna give it my all,” he said. “I’m gonna give myself a chance to win games. I’m a winner. I think everybody in this league knows that. Every team I’ve been on, we’ve succeeded.
“I’m sure a lot of playoff teams wanna come and try to pry me away from here, but I made it clear to the organization, I’m all in.”
To that end, he says he will try to help the young players not fall into the NBA’s waiting traps.
“You don’t want guys overthinking anything,” Crowder said. “You can overthink a lot in this league and it can mess with you.”
But also, if he’s to be a “library” for Jackson and others, he can’t let them wander into the fiction stacks.
No, only the truth will do.
So, he understands that when tracking progress with a young team that the franchise must put development first. But he says players also can’t get a free pass on performance because then the culture a team is hoping to cultivate can have its growth stunted.
“You don’t balance and measure it by winning and losing,” Crowder said. “You do it by, ‘Are you better than you were yesterday?’
“You look at yourself in the mirror,” he continued. “And that’s tough to do at a young age. You want to lie to yourself and say you gave your all.
“But am I better than I was yesterday? That will hold you to a standard.”