The relentless growth of Jae Crowder

Jan 24, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) reacts to a score against the Philadelphia 76ers during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The Celtics won 112-92. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 24, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) reacts to a score against the Philadelphia 76ers during the second half at Wells Fargo Center. The Celtics won 112-92. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

His social media profile is a case study in contrast, a paradox of 140 characters or less, and Jae Crowder attacks it with a fury normally reserved for opponents. There are no snapshots of the latest vacation or gourmet meal – nothing that falls into the self-serving vacuum that has become the norm. The account may belong to Crowder, the individual, but every post is for his teammates, everything in capitalized letters extolling the latest victory.

It’s an approach that seems perfectly suited for the Boston Celtics, Crowder’s second team in just four NBA seasons. The Celtics have achieved success in spite of themselves, with the team assembling draft picks before beginning their next era of sustained greatness. This current roster has been built on the fly, with only one current player having been on the team for over four years and only one over the age of 30. It lacks a prototypical NBA superstar and, by extension, the de facto leader in the locker room.

Production is by committee, and leadership comes from wherever you can find it. In the case of Crowder, nearly 240 lbs. of restrained passion, it comes by example.

Crowder’s emergence this season, his first full one in Boston, is the latest ironic step of a basketball journey that has struggled to find direction. Despite a NBA pedigree (his father, Corey Crowder, was a professional player both in the U.S. and overseas), he wasn’t a sought-after recruit out of high school. Lacking ideal height and built more like a  bulldog than a greyhound, he spent a season with South Georgia Tech and another with Howard University before earning a scholarship with Marquette University.

With the Golden Eagles, Crowder found a way to blend raw skills with infectious determination, eventually garnering recognition as the 2012 Big East Player of the Year. But when teams evaluated prospects for that year’s NBA Draft, Crowder’s collegiate success was often overlooked. Concerns about his shooting and size offset his potential, and he was selected by Cleveland in the second round before being traded to the Mavericks.

He was stuck in Dallas, languishing on a veteran-laden roster that was perpetually competing for a deep postseason run. There was no time to help Crowder develop, and even less for him to actually play. He had hardly distinguished himself in over two seasons when the Mavericks sent him to Boston in December 2014 as part of a package to acquire Rajon Rondo.

Although initially overjoyed at the chance to earn more playing time, Crowder was confused with the motives of the Celtics’ front office. General manager Danny Ainge’s goal of acquiring draft picks – and possibly tanking the season – was a well-established philosophy. But the hyper-competitive Crowder, along with other newcomer Isaiah Thomas, wanted to make a tangible impact, one that translated to winning.

Head coach Brad Stevens made it clear, according to Crowder, that tanking wasn’t on the table. Winning games was the priority. That was all the 6’6” chiseled forward needed to assure him that he was, finally, in the right place.

The Rondo experiment was an immense failure in Dallas, and the other players included in the deal were sent elsewhere or were simply never a factor. In Boston, Crowder displayed a competitive spirit that, as he explained to ESPN, the young Celtics were lacking.

“I don’t like losing, man. I play this game to win. I never in my life played to lose. I don’t know what that feels like. I don’t play like that. I play to win. I felt like that the locker room here was kind of sulking right when I got here. It was sad to be in a professional locker room like that. I didn’t like it. I just wanted to come in each and every day and put my work in and hopefully make guys feed off my energy and take it from there.”

It paid immediate dividends, both for the Celtics and for Crowder. The team unexpectedly clawed its way into the playoff picture, competing against a Cleveland Cavaliers squad that would represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. Ainge would keep his seemingly endless supply of draft picks. And Boston embraced their newly-acquired swingman and rewarded him with a 5-year, $35 million deal that is looking like one of the best bargains in the league.

His per-game numbers have risen, as expected, according to his increased playing time (up to 32.1 minutes per game, from 20.1 last season). His per-36 minute projections have also improved, reflecting a more efficient version of Crowder that has maximized his increased activity. As a result, he’s shooting career-highs from the field (.448), free throw line (.827) and, particularly, from three-point range (.360), where he has attempted more shots through just 49 games than he had throughout all of last season.

A recent subpar performance dropped his field-goal rate below 45 percent, but prior to that his combined percentages and points-per-game average put him in a very exclusive and efficient list that includes notable superstars like Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. While Crowder’s not likely to reach the same gaudy numbers as the others on this list, his inclusion speaks volumes of the improvements he’s made throughout his short career.

Moreover, one gets the feeling that he’s not actively interested in forcing the issue. The seeming disparity of leading a team in efficiency but not in production fits neatly with Crowder’s overall approach to each game. Covered in a hooded sweatshirt, he works in quiet concentration, running through the same repetitive motions – cut, catch and then shoot – without speaking a word. Once the whistle blows, he’s transformed, hounding teammates in deed and in word as he directs them defensively to create nightmares.

Once the ultimate goal of winning is achieved, vocals give way to another barrage of loud, celebratory tweets, each one ending with the hash-tagged expression, #ITALLSTARTEDINTHEDRIVEWAY. It’s a reminder of childhood battles, earning your keep and finding a way to claw, scratch or fight to a victory. And while the asphalt battleground has been replaced by the gleaming varnish of Boston’s parquet floor, the attitude that guided Jae Crowder from ignored high-school recruit to NBA stardom, remains intact and as passionate as ever.