Jae Crowder’s basketball career has been defined by transience. He’s played for seven teams in nine seasons in the NBA. In college, he spent time at three schools. Even when he was unanimously considered the best player at South Georgia Tech, he wasn’t there long enough to enjoy it.
His former coach Steven Wright remembers how much Crowder wanted to come back after leading South Georgia Tech to the NJCAA tournament in 2009. The night after the team was eliminated, Crowder came up to Wright’s hotel room in Hutchinson, Kansas, and told him to not get down on the results; the best players on their team were freshmen (including Crowder, who had just won NABC’s Junior College Player of the Year award). There was no way they wouldn’t be back in contention the following season. But the following season came, and Crowder wasn’t there.
To this day, Wright does not blame Crowder for transferring. There was a ceiling on his basketball career at South Georgia Tech, and Wright knew Crowder had potential for more. So after his freshman year, Crowder transferred to Howard College, and then a year later transferred again to Marquette. Crowder spent two seasons playing Big East basketball before the Mavericks acquired him with the 34th pick in the 2012 draft. And upon entering the NBA, Crowder began the process that’s led him from a second-round pick to a journeyman to the kind of player no team ever knows it needs until they have him.
“In our 36 games, there were probably no less than 10 of those games where he found himself playing every position on the floor,” Wright said in a phone call this week. “If I needed him to bring the ball down the floor and get us 2, he could do that. Come off a down screen and shoot the 3? He could do that. If I needed him to be my pick-and-pop guy, he could do that. If I needed to run him to the block and post up a 5 because he had a mismatch, he could do that. … It translates into what you’re seeing right now, because he can adapt and fit into whatever role he needs to be for the team to win.”
In the NBA, Crowder hasn’t always moved due to his own volition. He’s been traded five times (six, if you count the draft-night trade that the Mavericks made to acquire him), and he’s never been with an organization longer than three seasons. But what he’s missed in continuity and camaraderie, he’s gained back in a singular way: playoff experience. Everywhere he goes, he finds himself playing in the postseason.
You won’t see many Crowder jerseys walking around downtown Phoenix, but the first-year Suns forward has now been in the playoffs for eight straight seasons with five different teams—and he’s the only player in this year’s Suns-Bucks matchup to have previous Finals experience. Last year, he made the Finals for the first time with the Miami Heat, and though he’s back with an entirely different kind of team this season, he’s still averaging the same amount of minutes (31 per game) in the playoffs and making an impact.
“You understand he’s been there before. Our whole team understands he was just [at the Finals] last year,” Devin Booker said after the Suns’ 118-105 win in Game 1 on Tuesday. “We bank on him for that toughness … he’s always communicating with our team and being honest with them. When somebody’s slacking, Jae’s letting them know. Even if it’s aggressive, if you’re slipping up, he’s going to get on you.”
As past and present coaches and teammates will tell you, Crowder has the perfect combination of win-at-all-costs mentality, positional flexibility, and willingness to play whatever role the team carves out for him. And the fact that he’s more or less played against everyone in the league in the postseason gives him a treasure trove of knowledge that’s difficult to quantify until he makes the extra pass, moves an extra foot on defense, or adds an extra remark in the locker room.
“I love Jae and what he’s all about,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said in an email. “He’s a winning player. He has a toughness in the way he competes, but he also has a sincerity and authenticity that makes everyone want to go to battle with him.”
The education Crowder would need to thrive in the postseason came early in his NBA career. It started his rookie year in Dallas, where he played a surprising 17.3 minutes per game on a team that had Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, and Shawn Marion, as well as other experienced veterans. Crowder, who had been injected with what he calls the “Marquette DNA,” quickly figured out what he needed to do to stay on the floor: be physical and play defense. This wasn’t just any defense, though. If the court was a school, Crowder was basically taking an AP exam in his first week of class.
“I was guarding the Kobe Bryants, the LeBron Jameses my first few years,” Crowder said in a phone call a few days after the Suns swept the Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs. “It helped me see how I could impact a team [without scoring], and it eventually helped me see the player I wanted to be.”
Things wouldn’t get any easier from there. The following season, Crowder and the Mavs made the playoffs, and he found himself cooped up in a San Antonio hotel as a plethora of Spurs fans made noise outside his window late into the night. “From the time we landed to midnight, they were yelling and chanting San Antonio Spurs chants,” Crowder said. “That’s when I knew it was real.”
Crowder got yet another reality check when he stepped on the floor in that series. He realized that as the game slows down in the postseason, the whistles get sparser, and the physicality increases exponentially—a message he’s now relayed to the first-timers on this year’s Suns team. The Mavericks lost to the Spurs in seven games that year, and Crowder played only about 12 minutes a contest. But his postseason résumé grew quickly—although it wasn’t without its shortcomings.
In 2015, Crowder’s Celtics were swept by the Cavaliers in the first round. That series still sticks in Crowder’s mind, and he refers to it these days as a low point of his career.
“Getting swept by LeBron, that hurt me a little bit,” Crowder said. “I thought I could have done more, and I had just signed a contract. … I felt like more was being asked of me, and I could have given more. But that situation helped me grow into the player I am today.”
If you ask Crowder to describe his career, the phrase he likes to use is “motivational failure”—turning his past experiences into the fuel that drives him to do more. That attitude goes all the way back to Villa Rica High School near Atlanta, where Crowder played football and basketball. He didn’t become the school’s best basketball player until a growth spurt before his senior season. But even before Crowder evolved physically, Villa Rica coach Jason Robinson recalls his dedication. Despite the fact that the school’s 1959 gym lacked air conditioning, the young player basically lived there; Crowder’s physical limitations made him focus on putting in the work, taking advantage of angles, and making an impact on defense.
“I could say I coached an NBA player, but he wasn’t that back then,” Robinson said in a phone call this week. “He built himself into one.”
In Crowder’s family, competitiveness and drive runs rampant. Growing up in a household with a father who played in the NBA, Corey Crowder, and four brothers and sisters who were all athletes will do that to you. As Wright recalls, losing—whether in the weight room or on the court during practices—was something Crowder avoided at all costs. When he played with the third-stringers, he would try to beat the starters. And in the weight room he’d ask trainers to put every possible weight on the bar when he lifted. He wanted to win, which, in a team setting, is what allowed him to defer to other players on their hot nights, even if he was the best player on the floor.
“He figured out how to get the most out of who he was, and he learned from some of the best,” Wright said. “He goes right over and plays with Jimmy Butler, another Marquette guy, and then he goes this year and he’s with Chris Paul, who’s another guy that just figures out how to get the most out of who he is. All of a sudden, Jae has been with guys that have made him better, and he’s probably made them better because they’ve got a similar attitude.”
When asked how he’s been able to both fit in and make an impact on each NBA team he’s joined in his career, Crowder credits a few things: his experience, his affinity for playing and watching basketball, and—believe it or not—NBA2K, which he uses as an inadvertent scouting tool. (“We’re so tied to the game, we just know everybody,” Crowder said. “And then you play 2K and you develop [mental files on players]. I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s just our process.”) The respect he’s earned from opponents, coupled with the ability to play and defend multiple positions has kept him an attractive acquisition for any team with playoff aspirations.
“I’ve been every type of player you can think of,” Crowder said. “I’ve been the main guy, I’ve been point guard, I’ve been in center, I played all types of positions. I’m not selfish. I don’t really care about a lot of stuff that a lot of people may care about as a basketball player. I just care about winning, because winning trumps all. That’s why you train so hard—you’re trying to win and be the best. I think that’s my motivation.”
This season, Crowder’s versatility has come in handy for the Suns, who have needed him to guard LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Paul George, and now even Giannis Antetokounmpo at various points throughout their playoff series. The LeBron chapter was the most entertaining for Crowder, given his long history with James as both foes and teammates. And in that first-round series, Crowder went from being the butt of the joke to having the last laugh. Or the last salsa dance.
You can sense that this is the kind of environment Crowder has come to crave—competition at the highest level, against the best players. He can live with the results, trusting his ability to square off against the superstars of the league, and he can live with coming off as a nuisance because he knows it earns him respect with his peers. So when he’s asked if he’s had a tough time developing relationships with players given that he’s never been on a team longer than three years, Crowder laughs.
“I have great relationships with a lot of different players, from Donovan Mitchell to Rudy Gobert,” Crowder said. “But we compete. They know I try to kick their ass every time I see them, just for bragging rights. This is just how I get down.”
On Tuesday night, in Crowder’s second-ever Finals Game 1, the shots weren’t falling. You could almost see the hesitation start to creep in as the ball kept clanging off the rim. Then suddenly, perhaps even fittingly, Crowder the Defender made an appearance. With less than three minutes left in the half and the Suns up three, Crowder was guarding Giannis outside the paint. He forced the Bucks star to drive into an awkward position below the basket, then turned into a wall that Giannis tried to move with brute force. Antetokounmpo fell into the trap. Offensive foul. The arena erupted. The Suns finished the half on a 7-2 run, and took control of the game.
“I think [the charge] was a big part of the game,” Booker said postgame. “[He made] Giannis think that you just can’t go through him every time.”
Crowder was neither a headline nor a sidebar item in this game. He shot 0-for-8 from the field, finished with a single point, and had no assists. But the Suns were plus-19 while he was on the floor. Small sample size, intangibles, or whatever it is, his teammates notice his work, which holds an incalculable value. It’s why Booker ends up waxing poetic about a charge, and why a player like Deandre Ayton makes a point to note that some of his 19 rebounds were due to tips from Crowder. It’s also why Ayton’s signature playoff highlight—the game-winning Valley-Oop in the conference finals—is able to happen, because of Crowder’s pinpoint-perfect pass. Ayton made sure to acknowledge that, too.
“That’s definitely Jae’s game-winner,” Ayton said two weeks ago, before later saying of Crowder, “You can tell he’s played with a lot of great players.”
As Crowder joked recently, his choice to sign with the Suns this past offseason now makes him look like a genius. But even if he didn’t see this exact scenario playing out, his reasons for picking the Suns were telling. Crowder has always prioritized fit when considering where to sign, and just like he knew he would mesh well in Miami alongside Jimmy Butler when he put the Heat on his trade list in Memphis, Crowder saw the potential for profitable partnerships in Phoenix.
“I knew Devin Booker was ready to play some playoff basketball,” Crowder said. “I just felt like the fit would be great because I can play a lot of different positions, and I can complement CP and complement Book well. … They had a lot of young players who are eager to grow and learn. I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Crowder’s basketball future has never been set in stone. And despite the fact that he signed a three-year deal with the Suns in the offseason, there’s no guarantee he’ll play out that contract in Phoenix. A trade always looms—a reality that Crowder has become all too familiar with. But no matter what happens, Crowder has come to find fulfillment in the changes, in adapting to new players, playbooks, and environments, and giving himself different challenges and mountains to climb every few seasons. The constant has been his impact.
“It’s been great to go and put my imprint on each place I’ve been,” Crowder said. “Every place, the fan base always come around and ask me to come back, which is crazy. … I haven’t thought about [staying in Phoenix for longer], but if it plays out that way, I’ll be satisfied with that.”