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From rural South Carolina to Australia's Gold Coast: The behind-the-scenes story of Torrey Craig’s rollercoaster ride to Denver

Harrison Wind Avatar
January 16, 2018

*Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on December 22nd. We have made it free and changed the published date so that it is more visible to our readers on the home page. 

Five days after a midnight phone call summoned Torrey Craig from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where his G League team was playing the following day, to Denver for a Friday night matchup against the Pelicans, the 27-year-old rookie stood at his locker following a 112-104 loss to the Timberwolves and spoke with the media with the demeanor of a 15-year pro.

Craig’s whirlwind week that included three games and his first three NBA starts was finally complete. Last Friday against New Orleans, Craig played 18 minutes and was inserted on the game’s final possession of regulation to guard Jrue Holiday. He blocked Holiday’s potential game-winning jumper and Denver went on to win in overtime.

Craig shadowed reigning Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook two days later for 30 minutes. Even though Westbrook dropped 38 on Denver, Craig played him well.

In Wednesday’s loss, Craig checked Jimmy Butler, his third All-Star assignment in five days. Quite the crash-course for someone who was playing in Australia and New Zealand 10 months ago.

“It’s been a pretty busy week I would say,” Craig told BSN Denver late that night from his locker.

No kidding. Craig’s journey to the Nuggets is so improbable and so unlikely, a screenplay chronicling his rise might not even get picked up in Hollywood.

His road to the NBA started in rural South Carolina. Craig starred at Great Falls High but wasn’t offered a scholarship to play college ball by any Power Six schools. He sifted through a slew of mid-major offers, stayed close to home and enrolled at South Carolina Upstate.

Eddie Payne, who stepped down from the job due to health concerns in October after 17 years as a college head coach, coached Craig for the four seasons he played at Upstate.

“I always thought he had a chance to play at the next level,” Pain told BSN Denver from a Spartanburg, South Carolina, car wash. “I knew he was going to play somewhere. His sophomore year, we went up to Ohio State. Torrey had 25, and there were more people in that gym watching that game than were in his hometown.”

Before his recent call-up, Craig was averaging more than 25 points per game in the G League. He was a scorer in college too and didn’t buy into defense until he went abroad. Ironically, his defensive prowess is what got him a look with the Nuggets.

“If he had guarded here like he guards now, we would have won a couple championships, I guarantee you,” Pain said.

“My first three years of college, I was terrible defensively,” Craig recalled. All I cared about was offense.”

The tipping point for Craig came during his senior year and then after he left the states. Scouts from the Pacers and Magic started coming to his USC Upstate practices. They recognized his skill, offensive talent and upside but told him he would have to defend to find success at the next level. The summer after his junior year, Craig committed himself to defense.

That realization served as Craig’s epiphany, his awakening and taking that defensive pledge changed his outlook as a prospect. Scouts scour the world for players like Craig — ones with his size and wingspan — but while scorers run abundant throughout the states, Europe and Australia, two-way players in Craig’s mold who bring it on both offense and defense are the most desired assets in today’s NBA.

After college Craig took his talents to Cairns, Queensland. He lived on Australia’s Eastern rim along the Great Barrier Reef. There, coaches again wanted him to shoot less and defend more.

It wasn’t an easy transition. Craig pouted. He was upset. But eventually, he bought in and realized he could impact the game without scoring. Craig became a standout player for Cairns.

Joe Connelly, brother of Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim, was named head coach of the Sydney Kings in November 2015. His first game walking the sidelines was against Cairns and Craig.

“I was talking trash to him and just remember how he didn’t seem fazed in the least,” Joe Connelly said.

That night Craig scored 20 points. He dunked all over the Kings’ 7-foot-2 center Jordan Vandenberg. Craig finished Sydney off with a 35-foot game-winner.

“It was his demeanor that I remember too,” Joe Connelly recalled. “He just went hard all the time.”

The National Basketball League that Cairns plays in isn’t the most well-known league in the world, but it prepared Craig well.

The NBL is full of high-IQ player who play physical. It aligns with Aussie culture and has produced players that have gone on to star in other divisions across the world. It’s no throwaway league like some say. All games are broadcast on television, and the league’s fans are smart and well-educated. It forced Craig to grow up quickly.

Craig’s demeanor, poise, and presence stick out like a sore thumb. On the court, he plays like a veteran — composed, fierce and calm. He’s disciplined on defense and studies his assignments thoroughly. When he speaks with the media, like he did that night after Denver hosted Minnesota and has done after each of the last three games, he talks like he’s gone through the song and dance routine hundreds of times before.

After Craig’s left-handed tomahawk put the Cairns’ faithful into a frenzy, Connelly passed Craig’s name on to his brother. Tim saw Craig in person for the first time last season.

When Denver offered him a spot on its Summer League team in July, Craig hesitated. He was living on Australia’s Gold Coast playing in the Queensland Basketball League and trying to become an Australian citizenship so he could stay in the country. He was comfortable but eventually came to grips that he couldn’t pass up on the opportunity.

“I know you only get one shot at this NBA thing,” Craig recalled.

Craig was an instant hit in Las Vegas. He averaged 11.5 points across six Summer League games for the Nuggets. It was obvious he could play. Craig would later earn a two-way contract with Denver in a large part because of his defense and hustle.

There might be no one happier that Craig is in Denver than his coach. After a 4:30 a.m. flight that morning, Craig did his best to digest a Pelicans’ scouting report for that night. Malone didn’t hesitate to throw him into the fire (and his starting lineup) just 10 hours or so after he arrived at the facility.

“He’s a quick study,” Malone said.

Craig has undergone a last-minute finals week study binge on the Nuggets’ playbook and terminology since arriving in Denver. He’s been getting with Nuggets’ coaches for one-on-one sessions almost daily but has a bit of a leg up from a standard G League call-up after spending training camp with the team.

He’s also a coach’s dream. Craig’s low-maintenance, unselfish and a hard worker. In college, a big night for him was playing video games.

Craig’s also a high-energy and effort player. He has a two-way spirit that’s rare in today’s NBA.

“Defense is 75 percent effort,” he said.

That belief carries over to the practice court too. When USC Upstate went 5-on-0 at practice and ran through their play calls — something players usually go through at half or three-quarters speed, Craig did something his coach never had another player do across his 43 years walking the sideline.

“Torrey rebounded every missed shot or tried to on every play in dummy offense for four years,” Payne said. “I think a lot of his success has to do with his attitude and his approach.”

In Denver, Craig’s quickly gained the coaching staff’s trust. He also checks a lot of Malone’s boxes in terms of what makes a good defender.

“You have to have a mental makeup of ‘I want to defend.’ He has that,” Malone said. “And then obviously he has all the physical tools. The size, the wingspan, the lateral quickness to keep guys in front and he’s also a very tough kid. Doesn’t back down from a challenge. That’s why I think Torrey literally can guard on any given night 1-4 and depending on the matchup, 1-5.”

His defense got him on the court, but as Malone put it multiple times over the past week, Craig isn’t “broken” on offense like a lot of defense-only players are. Craig always had good range and mechanics on his jumper but was an inconsistent shooter in college.

He rose to another level as a prospect once he honed in his three-point shot. After shooting just 31 percent from distance during the 2015-16 season in the NBL, Craig hit on 40 percent of his threes last season with the Brisbane Bullets. Now, he shoots the ball with confidence.

Craig’s role as a two-way wing who can log 20-30 minutes a night and guard one of the opponent’s best swing scorers seems clear. But Craig still has areas where he needs to improve. Specifically, he’s got to tighten up his handle.

“The great thing about Torrey is he’s not just a defensive specialist. He’s a complete player,” Malone said. “He can make shots. He runs the floor. He cuts and moves well without the ball and he’s a hell of an athlete who can finish on people. “I think his upside is really intriguing.

“He’s not just a defensive player, not just a specialist.” Torrey Craig is an NBA player. A complete player.”

Craig scored 14 points against the Thunder then hit double-digits again versus the Pelicans. He’s gone 6-10 from three-point range over this recent three-game stint.

Under his two-way contract Craig can only be with the Nuggets for 45 days this season. But with how he’s played and how integral an ingredient he already is to Denver’s gameplan, it’s hard envisioning him playing another minute in the G League this year.

“My hope is that somehow during the year, if possible, we can figure out how to keep him around as long as possible,” Malone said.

Craig got acquainted with his teammates during training camp but gained their utmost trust over these past three games. Will Barton said that he realized Craig was an NBA-level player at training camp. Nikola Jokic joked that Craig stole the ball from him during a drill in Boulder where the Nuggets held two-a-day practices in September. That’s when he knew Craig was for real.

“I trust him,” Barton said after Craig’s game-saving block on Holiday.

It’s also hard envisioning Craig leaving Denver’s starting lineup after his performances over the past week. He’s matched up against the opposition’s best perimeter player in three straight games and with Portland on tap for Friday and Golden State on Saturday, another slew of All-Star caliber talents await the Nuggets.

After a week where he tracked Holiday, Westbrook and Butler, C.J. McCollum, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and other Western Conference All-NBA talents like James Harden, Kawhi Leonard are next up on Craig’s study guide.

“When it first happened, yeah,” a level-headed Craig said when asked him if this past week had been surreal. “But the time for that is over now. I’m just trying to play and get wins.”

Defending a trio of All-Stars across five games in three days is a catchy preamble to what will be a sustained NBA career. But you get the feeling Craig’s story is far from over.

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