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2019-20 Season Grades: Torrey Craig

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More of the same for the Nuggets’ defensive specialist

Denver Nuggets v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Torrey Craig 2019-20 season stats:

Games Played Minutes per game Points Rebounds Assists Field Goal % Three-Point % Free Throw %
50 17.4 5.0 3.1 0.7 46.2 33.0 64.5

Season Breakdown:

Torrey Craig continued to be a reliable contributor off the bench during the 2019-20 season. He played in 50 of the Nuggets 65 games including 19 spot starts, averaging 17.4 minutes per game. Despite a limited offensive skillset that hasn’t seen significant improvement since he first joined the Nuggets three years ago, Craig has accumulated substantial playing time as a backup shooting guard and small forward because of his commitment on the defensive end.

Craig’s best stretch of the season started against the Houston Rockets on January 22—a game where he solidified his reputation as the “Westbrook Whisperer.” He added 14 points on 6/10 shooting, but it was his defense on Westbrook that played a key role in the Nuggets holding the Rockets under 100 points in route to a 16-point win on the road.

Following that performance, Craig put up 15 points and 10 rebounds against the Pelicans in an important road win. His efficient scoring, tenacious defense, and effective rebounding helped put the Nuggets over the top against a team that had embarrassed them twice earlier in the season.

Following another decent game against Houston a few nights later, Craig had 13/10 and 11/5 against Utah and Milwaukee—two games the Nuggets played with an arm tied behind their backs after a slew of injuries (a January tradition for this team). Craig’s ability to slide into a starting role and match up against athletic perimeter players helped the Nuggets navigate a stretch that helped save Denver’s regular season prior to the All-Star break. Without Torrey Craig, the Nuggets would likely have had a significantly worse January and regular season overall.

His playing time waned after the break, though. He had two DNPs in the final 8 games and only scored in double figures once. With Michael Porter Jr. taking an increasing number of minutes as the backup small forward, Craig’s time took a hit, and it’s unclear what his role would’ve been by the time the Nuggets hit the court in Round 1. It seems likely that Malone would have fallen back on the comfort of his defensive Swiss Army Knife—at least at some point—but much would’ve depended on the play of MPJ and Gary Harris.

Here’s to hoping we still get to see where Craig will fit into a playoff rotation this season.

Season Grade: C+

This grade may seem a bit harsh at first glance, but it’s really a reflection of his role on the team. Craig was not given a lot of opportunities to grow this season, and when he did get substantial minutes, his contributions were valuable—even game changing on occasion. But Craig is nothing if not the definition of an “average” bench player.

Like most average bench players, Craig has an elite skill that keeps him on an NBA roster—defense, in his case. At 6’7, his size coupled with athleticism and versatility allows him to defend guards and forwards, and he has shown the ability to control some of the top offensive talents in basketball. However, he also has some major weaknesses that offset his defensive strengths. His 33% from three isn’t awful, but he is streaky from beyond the arc and has almost no midrange game. So, defenses do not respect his outside shot at all, making spacing tougher for everyone else. This causes the offense to break down often while Craig is in the game. The same was true last year, too, unfortunately. Without any discernible improvement on the offensive end, Craig remains, essentially, a specialist.

Overall, he definitely provides value to this team. His ability to step up when called on—even after DNPs and reduced minutes—is a testament to his character and work ethic. What’s more, he’s fun to root for and a great success story. In his case, there is absolutely no shame in being “average.” He does what Malone asks of him, and he goes about his business professionally.

I can’t help but think, though, that there’s another level for him. It’s hard for most players to improve offensively without consistent playing time and opportunity, so some of his offensive stagnation could boil down to how the Nuggets use him. It could also be that this is what he is offensively, relegating him to a career as a defensive specialist in a bench role. Either way, we got more of the same from Torrey Craig in 2019-20, and that was just fine.

What’s next for Craig?

Craig will become a restricted free agent at the end of the season. It’s unlikely that he will find a home as accommodating for his defense-only skillset as he has with the Nuggets and their head coach who prioritizes that side of the ball. The team is also thin at shooting guard and small forward after the departure of Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, and Jordan McRae. With Gary Harris in the midst of a two-season shooting slump, Craig could actually have a path into the starting lineup if the Nuggets are forced to part ways with either him or Barton at some point to clear up cap space or to transition to bigger perimeter players.

Without a doubt, Harris has more upside than Craig. He is two years removed from being one of the better two-way guards in all of basketball, and 25-year-old players generally don’t just forget how to shoot. However, comparing the per-36 numbers for Craig and Harris this year isn’t encouraging for the Nuggets’ third highest paid player. Harris averaged around one more point and steal, while Craig shot better from the field, rebounded about twice as well, and blocked shots at a much higher rate. Based off of just 2019-20, Harris wasn’t worth the additional $17 million the Nuggets paid him.

Regardless of whether Harris can rebound in 2020 and beyond, Craig would remain a useful tool off the bench. He doesn’t need touches, and he can find ways of impacting a game without scoring. His merit was shown in the 2019 Playoffs when Barton struggled to get his own offense going, and he demonstrated a similar ability to add backbone during some challenging situations this season. Players like that have a role on teams with championship aspirations.

Denver Nuggets v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images