WASHINGTON, D.C. - Jordan Crawford played 16 minutes in the Wizards' 105-99 loss to the Mavericks on Saturday night, which is exactly one-tenth of the amount of minutes he played in his entire NBA career before being traded from the Hawks. Many of those minutes came at the end of the game, when Flip Saunders put him out there with four other starters to try to steal a win from the league's hottest team.
Afterwards, Crawford's voice was hoarse and his demeanor weary. But in the midst of a rare postgame interview for him, he shared his philosophy on player development on the NBA level. To Crawford, it all comes down to playing time.
"You can't [develop without playing time]," he said. "You can't. That's how I look at it. I don't think you can. I was always the type of person where I felt I got better in a five-on-five [situation]. When you play a game, that's how you really get better.
It was an astute comment, one that applies to him and for this organization as a whole.
Crawford didn't literally mean that everything he learns is meaningless if he doesn't get a chance to show it off in game action. He credits lessons learned from Jamal Crawford, Mike Bibby and Hawks assistant coach Nick Van Exel ("like Sam Cassell here" is how he described him) for working with him in practice extensively. But when asked to follow up a little bit more on how he tries to improve his game even given his previous lack of playing time, he went back to the same point.
"I had Nick Van Exel in Atlanta. It was good for me," he said. "But as a person, I just feel like games is where you really get better."
Crawford inadvertently hit on the biggest challenge any NBA coach faces, especially with a young team like this one. When I asked Flip Saunders before the game how difficult it is for a coach to facilitate player development, he noted that, realistically, nine of his players are youngsters who need consistent minutes. But you can only play five guys at a time, so no matter what you do, some players just won't get their chance.
For one night, Crawford got his chance, and the results were mixed. He clearly has a very refined offensive game, flashing a nice mid-range pull-up, a three-point shot and an ability to get into the lane. The Wizards have talked up his "competitiveness" ever since acquiring him from the Hawks, and we saw a little bit of that on display at the end of the game. But he's also the kind of player who needs game experience to figure out how he can be most effective. He seems a little too anxious when he's out on the floor, desperately trying to make plays that, for now, are not routine for him.
Saunders, for one, sees a lot of talent in Crawford. He said the Wizards had him high on their draft board last year and loves the way he competes.
"He didn't play a whole lot when he was in Atlanta, but I was talking to Mike Bibby, and he said 'Coach, I'm telling you, this kid is extremely talented," Saunders said. "He might not have played a lot, but he's got unbelievable talent."
Crawford said his biggest strength offensively is his ability to both hit the jump shot and get to the rim in a half-court setting. He wouldn't tell me his favorite spot on the floor, but did admit that corner threes are good spots because of the shorter distance to the rim. But for him to make the most out of all his skills, he needs to become more efficient. His usage rate in Atlanta (27.9 percent) was way too high, and it was similarly high (25.3) even against Dallas.
For Crawford, that is a two-step process: slowing down when on the court and learning how he fits into a team setting. I asked him about the challenges of doing that, and he said he feels he is capable of figuring those out.
"My tendency at Xavier was to try to do everything, and now, I can back off," he said. "If you're a selfish player, yeah, it can be tough [to adjust]. But not if you're an unselfish player."
Of course, that goes back to Crawford's astute analysis at the top. He's got a lot of talent, and now that he has more of an opportunity to show it than he had in Atlanta. You can bet that he will do everything he can to try to take advantage of it. But to facilitate his development, he needs playing time to work out the kinks, get used to an NBA setting and learn how to best use his skills in a team setting.
"He's got to learn what we're doing, with our concepts, and as most rookies do, he has to learn the game," Saunders said.
It's the biggest challenge for Saunders going forward. This league is full of Jordan Crawford types. It's on Saunders to figure out a way to get the most out of his.