Aaron Craft often gets lost in the midst of his larger, more physically imposing teammates, admitting numerous times that he looks more like a team manager than Ohio State’s starting point guard.
That was the beauty of his game in his freshman season. Constantly overlooked by his opponents because of his unintimidating physique, Craft instead proved to be one of the best defenders in the Big Ten a year ago.
Heading into his sophomore season for the Buckeyes, Craft is ready for an encore – this time hoping to prove to the same stable of doubters that he can have a similar impact on Ohio State’s offensive plans.
“My goal is to be a little more aggressive offensively,” Craft told BSB. “Not necessarily creating offense only for myself, but helping other people by putting them in a better position for them to score, too.”
Often praised for his high basketball IQ, Craft already excelled last season in helping facilitate others on the offensive end, helping lead Ohio State to a 34-3 overall record. He finished the year with a team-best 177 assists, including a school-record 15 in a win against George Mason in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
But gone are some other key pieces that helped the Buckeyes to one of Thad Matta’s most successful seasons with the program, and they were all major offensive threats.
Jon Diebler, the best three-point shooter in the Big Ten last year, and David Lighty, a multitalented scorer that also boosted Ohio State with his defensive prowess, have both moved on to professional basketball in Europe.
Now the Buckeyes are left with a good nucleus of players – including Craft, senior guard William Buford and sophomore center Jared Sullinger – but face one major question that begs to be answered.
“Who’s going to score for us?” Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals asked.
The Buckeyes will likely get points from a variety of different places, as Buford, Sullinger and even sophomore Deshuan Thomas have all proven they can score in bunches. But there might also be more of an onus to score on Craft, who filled different roles a season ago.
“This year with Jon and Dave leaving, (Craft) is going to have to probably increase his scoring productivity, which he is very capable of doing,” Boals said. “What people don’t understand is he was a 2-guard on his AAU team and he averaged 27 points per game for his high school team. He is very capable of doing it.”
Though often compared to former one-and-done Buckeye point guard Mike Conley Jr. – who came to Ohio State as part of the star-studded 2006 recruiting class that also included one-and-dones Greg Oden and Daequan Cook – Craft isn’t often viewed as the athletic scoring point guard Conley eventually became.
Conley averaged 11.3 points in his season with the Buckeyes, including a magical NCAA Tournament performance that helped Ohio State to the national championship game while simultaneously boosting his already skyrocketing NBA stock.
Meanwhile, Craft was more of the facilitator for the Buckeyes last year. A guy that made big plays on defense and found other more prolific scorers on the offensive end in his freshman season, Craft averaged 6.9 points per game.
But it wasn’t because he wasn’t capable of scoring.
“I just didn’t have to score that much with the guys I had around me,” Craft said. “It just wasn’t part of my role as much as it may be this upcoming year. It is definitely there and I have been able to do it in high school, but I know that the college level is completely different.”
Craft showed glimpses of his scoring ability last season and his first offensive show came in a game that many expected would expose the freshman defensively. Instead, Craft proved his early defensive success wasn’t a fluke.
The Buckeyes – still undefeated at the time – were set to face off against Penn State and prolific point guard Talor Battle, viewed as one of the most dynamic offensive weapons in all of college basketball.
Going up and above just playing defense, Craft ended up scoring a career-high 19 points for Ohio State on a night in which the team was struggling to find its scoring rhythm.
Knocking down 4 of 6 attempts from three-point range, Craft boosted Ohio State to a win that helped the Buckeyes find the top spot in the polls the following week.
Battle, meanwhile, was held to just 5-of-17 shooting including just one made three-point attempt in 10 tries. Months later, Battle publicly stated on his Twitter account that Craft was the toughest defender he faced the entire season.
“I think a couple of times they had to pick and choose who to leave on the perimeter and I was that guy because I didn’t shoot that much,” Craft said, describing the situations where he became a big scorer a year ago. “They would come off me and let me be alone, and when that happened Jared was unselfish enough to pass me the ball and I could knock down some open shots.”
This year Craft could be a bigger focal point in the offense while playing off the ball, Boals said. Going back to his days of AAU ball where Craft played shooting guard, it’s likely he could be switched over to the position at times while Shannon Scott takes over as the team’s point guard.
Boals remained confident in Craft’s ability to make the transition if Ohio State put him in that position, citing his relationship with Diebler as the main reason for his growth over the course of the past year.
“Jon showed him a work ethic,” Boals said. “Being a gym rat that he was kind of showed Aaron what it was going to take. Anytime Jon was in the gym – Aaron is as competitive as anybody – he was right there with him shooting jumper for jumper.”
But it was the work on the defensive end that helped Craft storm onto the scene as one of the Big Ten’s best point guards.
Known more for his smart decision-making and uncanny ability to move laterally on defense, Craft hopes he took another step forward defensively in the past year. The offense, Craft said, will only make him a more complete player.
“Defense is just something I take great pride in and something I really enjoy doing,” he said. “It is something I know I can always go out and play the hardest on defense and that aspect of my game can always be there.
“I may not be able to make shots some games or might make some knucklehead mistakes on the offensive end, but defense is all about heart and intensity and those are things I know I can bring to the table and always help my team to win.”
In Craft’s quest to take the next step as one of the premier guards in college basketball, becoming a reliable and consistent force on offense is one thing that will have to be added to his already expanding game.
Being a leader, too, is just something he’s picked up as a side project. The weight of the world could be on Craft’s shoulders in the coming months. As usual, he’s up for the challenge.
“I believe I am a leader,” Craft said. “That opportunity has presented itself and someone has to do it.”
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