Torrey Craig is the Denver Nuggets defensive stopper but can be more


We believe the Denver Nuggets have the best bench in the NBA, so we decided to rank their five best bench players in order.

Torrey Craig became a crucial part of the Denver Nuggets bench last season and his stock is definitely on the rise following a successful summer heading into the 2019-20 season.

Craig played 629 minutes in the 2017-18 season and saw that figure increase to just over 1,500 total minutes for the 2019 season. The Nuggets are short on wing stoppers, so Craig gets a bit of a boost in our Nuggets Bench Unit Power Rankings for positional scarcity alone. That being said, Craig is a gamer and was up for the challenge of guarding the opposition’s best perimeter scorer every night.

Even with young wings Vlatko Cancar and Michael Porter Jr. trending towards becoming capable contributors sooner rather than later, Craig’s defensive presence and timely 3-point shooting will be big for head coach Mike Malone in the 2019-20 season.

In case you missed it, below is our first entry in our Denver Nuggets Bench Unit Power Rankings, Mason Plumlee.

Next: Mason Plumlee is the KEY to a well-rested Jokic

2018-19 Review:

Torrey Craig was found money for the Denver Nuggets in the 2019 season. Denver signed Craig to a two-way deal for the 2017-18 season and after showing flashes that year, he became a legitimate defensive stopper for the Nuggets in the 2018-19 season.

The 2019 NBA postseason was a great showcase of Craig’s value, which is heightened on a Denver Nuggets team perilously thin on proven wing talent. Coach Malone used Craig and his massive wingspan to bother Portland Trail Blazers star, Damian Lillard. Portland won the long Western Conference Semifinals series against Denver, but Craig was a big part of the reason the series went seven games.

Over those seven Western Conference Semifinals games, Lillard got his buckets, netting 25.1 points per game but he got those points while shooting 40.7 percent from the field, 28.8 percent from the 3-point line and 79.6 percent from the free-throw line, all well below his regular-season averages.

What makes Craig such an effective defender is the fact that he possesses the three most important factors for a great NBA defender. He has the physical tools, the necessary basketball-IQ and gives maximum effort every game.

2019-20 Outlook:

Heading into 2019-20, Torrey Craig is one of many Nuggets with a very clear and defined role despite a large number of solid players on the Denver roster. He played 16 minutes per game his first year with the Nuggets and 20 minutes per game last season. I would say it’s a safe bet that will see at least 20-25 minutes a game next season and that’s on the conservative side of things.

The other viable wing options on the Nuggets—players like Vlatko Cancar, Malik Beasley, Will Barton, and Michael Porter Jr.—don’t possess the same defensive upside as Craig when guarding small forwards. And on top of that, Craig has the agility to glide around screens and stay with point guards, something none of the aforementioned Denver Nuggets wings can do.

While defense is his calling card, Craig made major strides on offense last year.

Craig is an adept cutter and uses that skill often as defenses usually don’t respect his 3-point shot. The fact that Craig has vertical gravity on offense (in the halfcourt and in fullcourt situations) would be great even if he was an abysmal shooter but that is not the case, making him an even more intriguing player next season.

Craig shot 188 total 3-point attempts in the 2018-19 season, hitting them at a 32.4 percent clip. That figure is on par with his college and rookie year 3-point shooting numbers, but his playoff stats are where his shooting prowess looks like it is on the rise. He shot 36 total 3-pointers over his 14 playoff games (2.6 3PA per game) and made them at extremely efficient 47.2 percent clip.

His best moment of the postseason was his 18-point outburst against the San Antonio Spurs in round one of the Western Conference Playoffs. Craig went 5-7 from the 3-point line in that game to go along with his two steals and a block, which helped the Nuggets secure a crucial Game 4 win on the road.

Craig’s 3-point percentage improved 3 percent from his rookie year through his second season, and if he takes a similar leap forward for the 2019-20 season, his 3-point percentage would be around 35 percent, a figure that would make it even harder for defenses to ignore him.

His offensive rating was 114 (points per 100 possessions) in 2019 and with even more familiarity with the coaching staff and his teammates, there is a chance that Craig performs well enough to play himself out of a bench role. For now, though, we should all be able to agree that Craig is still very underrated by the general populace and will be a force with the Denver Nuggets bench unit.

 

Key statistic: +2.33 DRAYMOND Defensive rating (16th best in the league)

Statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight created a new defensive metric called DRAYMOND. This statistic is a defensive rating model that uses opponents’ shooting data (full details here) to essentially show how much value a defender provides relative to an open shot. No statistic model in basketball is a perfect catch-all stat but DRAYMOND provides some valuable insight.

Because the model is so heavily focused on players being the nearest defender on shot attempts, many, many big men (who are usually parked near the paint on defense) rate as the best defenders in the league, but alas there was Torrey Craig, ranked as a top-20 defender in the league via DRAYMOND.

Craig finished the 2018-19 season with a +2.33 DRAYMOND DRtg, meaning he provided the Denver Nuggets with +2.33 points per 100 possessions of defensive value. On top of the new DRAYMOND rating, Craig also finished with career-bests in (traditional) defensive rating, steals, and blocks. He can make improvements in his offensive game that will raise his ceiling as a player but ultimately Craig’s dedication on the defensive side of the ball will ensure that he is a key piece of the Nuggets rotation.

 



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