Jae Crowder almost didn’t make it out of the JuCo ranks

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MILWAUKEE – Far too often, we overlook the blessings in our lives.

Whether it’s because the app we downloaded onto our iPad isn’t working or our internet provider doesn’t carry ESPN3 or even something as simple accidentally buying the wrong brand of toothpaste, the little things in life always seem to be the most annoying. I know I’ve come close to throwing my cell phone out the window because the picture I took wouldn’t upload to twitter.

Life is hard, you know?

Jae Crowder doesn’t look at it that way.

“It could be worse,” Crowder said after scoring 15 points in Marquette’s 62-57 win over Pitt on Saturday afternoon. “I’m happy every day. I’m blessed. I wake up with a smile. Even when we have two-a-days.”

And why shouldn’t he be?

It wasn’t too long ago that a future as a Division I basketball player seemed unlikely.

When Crowder graduated high school, he initially enrolled in at South Georgia Tech, a Junior College in Americus, GA, that Crowder hoped would help him land a full-ride. From a basketball perspective, it worked out. Crowder led South Georgia Tech to “Hutch”, or Hutchinson Community College, where the NJCAA Tournament is held annually. He was good enough that he had Division I head coaches coming up to talk to him, but what they were saying wasn’t exactly what he wanted to hear.

“Bob Huggins came up to me at practice and said ‘you should get out of there. If you want to play Division I basketball, you need to leave and give yourself a chance,'” Crowder said. “That’s when me and my dad started searching around and really getting the facts on what the school is.”

Or, rather, what the school isn’t: accredited.

For those that aren’t well-versed in educational lingo, “the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality”, according to the US Department of Education. In other words, none of the work that Crowder did while at South Georgia Tech would count if he tried to transfer to a Division I school.

“Of course, when the coach recruited me in high school, he didn’t tell me that. He wanted a good player,” Crowder said. “I went to school a whole year and no classes transferred anywhere.”

Crowder took Huggy Bear’s advice. He left South Georgia Tech and enrolled at Howard College. But if he truly wanted to become a Division I basketball player, it was going to require him to not only continue to develop his skills on the court, but to essentially take two years worth on classes in two semesters.

So Crowder buckled down and busted his tail in the classroom. What choice did he have?

“I doubled up on classes and did summer school up at Marquette and got enough credits to transfer in,” Crowder said. “You’re doubling everything in your schedule, and on top of that your playing basketball. We won the national championship that year, but it was the toughest thing I ever had to do.”

“I had to go right back to school to do some more school work after we on the national championship.”

Did I mention he was the tournament MVP?

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Its not easy to define what position Jae Crowder plays for the Golden Eagles.

He’s clearly not a point guard or a center, but beyond that it is difficult to find a label for him. Usually, that’s a negative quality for a player to have. Being placed in the tweener category is far from a punched ticket to the first round of the NBA draft.

Not true, for Crowder. Generally speaking, a tweener becomes a tweener because of what they can’t do on a basketball court — they aren’t strong enough to hold their own in the paint and they aren’t skilled or coordinated enough to be a full-time perimeter player. Crowder’s issue isn’t really an issue at all, because there simply isn’t much that he isn’t able to do on a basketball court.

“Jae’s versatility is on both ends of the floor,” Marquette head coach Buzz Williams told me in the bowels of the Bradley Center. “Playing Jae at the three, playing Jae at the four. We’re running stuff to get him the ball inside, we’re running stuff to get him isolated out on the perimeter, how we’re guarding ball screens when he’s involved.”

“He’s a switchable and he completely has the best instincts of any player I ever coached.”

Under Williams, Marquette has become a hot bed for players of Crowder’s ilk. Before him, it was Jimmy Butler, who went on to become the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA draft and scored 12 points in a game for the Bulls last weekend. Before Butler, it was Lazar Hayward, who is currently getting his paychecks signed by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Before Hayward, it was Wesley Matthews, who is currently averaging more than 15 ppg for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Not a single one of those guys were blessed with the kind of physical tools that would make them a sure-fire NBA prospect, yet they thrived playing in the Marquette system.

Why?

“I think its more about being a mismatch, they’re guys that can play inside and out,” Darius Johnson-Odom said. “I think they create a lot of mismatches for other teams. Its kind of hard to guard a guy you can’t play off that can bang inside.”

Crowder reiterated the same sentiment, crediting the “freedom” Williams gives his players to do whatever they are capable of so long as it comes within the structure of the Marquette offense.

“He believes in your game,” Crowder said. “Guys like me, we just get to play freely, not worrying about if I can do this or if I can do that. Just playing within your self as long as its part of the system.”

More than anything, Williams has developed an eye for locating that kind of a player. Where some coaches are worried about athleticism and some are worried about height or shooting ability, Williams simply wants guys that understand the game and know how to play. He’s looking for kids that he can trust to have success when they get put into different situations.

“I love coaching those guys. I love guys that know how to play. That have a good pace about them,” Williams said. “I remember [former Oklahoma coach] Billy Tubbs always told me when you’re watching players, always pay attention to their glide. He wasn’t talking about their gait. What is their pace? What is their rhythm?”

“I think Jae’s glide is as good as any guy I’ve ever been around.”

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Whenever you hear stories about how a coach found a player that no one else was recruiting, there is always a story behind it; something sensational that the player accomplished while that coach happened to be standing on the sidelines. Like love at first sight, all it takes is one dunk or one no-look pass or one charge taken to realize ‘Hey, this kid’s going to be pretty good.’

What did Crowder do that caught Williams’ eye?

“Jae had three fouls in the first half, finished with three points and four boards,” Williams said. “He was awful. Played 10 minutes.”

Huh?

He did what?

Explain.

“Much has been written about all of the college coaches that I wrote as a kid. One of the college coaches of the 425 that I accumulated during my career was on the rise as a Division I coach. His name was Mark Adams. He was at UT-Pan American,” Williams, who is as good of a storyteller as you will come across in this business, said.

“Its almost role reversal. In some respects, some people think I’m on the rise. I get a call from one college coach I used to write, and he says ‘do you remember Mark Adams?’ I wrote him 400 letters, I remember him. ‘He’s the head coach at a JuCo and he loves you and he remembers you writing and he wants you to call him.'”

So Buzz called, and it turns out that Adams was the head coach at Howard College and wanted him to come check out Crowder, who Adams said was ‘the best player he’s ever coached.’ So Williams books a flight and takes in a game, and Crowder does absolutely nothing. It was bad enough that Adams came up to Williams after the game to apologize for the bad tip and poor showing.

As Williams tells it, “I said ‘Coach, I want him.’ He says ‘What do you mean?’ I said ‘Coach, I was 19 years old and you were the rising star in Division I. I know you know what a player is more than I do. I trust you.'”

But there was more to it than simply trusting the instinct of a guy that was up-and-coming the better part of two decades ago.

“I saw Jae have the worst game he could have and he was by far the best teammate in the building,” Williams said. “He’s coaching, he’s on the bench waving towels, its a time out and he’s meeting them on the floor giving them dap.”

“He could play for me.”

The sticking point came in the form of the academics. Crowder had so much work to do and so little time to do it that actively recruiting him would hinder the likelihood that he would be able to get eligible immediately.

And, for Williams, this is where he got a bit lucky.

You see, Crowder’s father played for Kentucky Wesleyan when he was in college. Williams assistant coach Scott Monarch just so happened to cut his teeth Kentucky Wesleyan, acting as associate head coach when they won the Division II national title back in 1998. Once the two sides figured out that connection, the ball got rolling.

But Williams still wasn’t interested in chasing this kid if he didn’t want to come.

“I called Jae the next day,” Williams told me, “and said ‘Jae, I want you to come to Marquette. But I want you to understand that you have a lot of work to do academically. … I ain’t got time for all the glitz and glamour of recruiting. [You’re] my kind of guy, I promise you.'”

And he was right.

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Jae Crowder never ended up making an official visit to Marquette.

That might have been a good thing.

“If I knew it was this cold I would have had second guesses,” Crowder said with a smile before he headed out into yet another winter day in Milwaukee that never made it out of the teens. “But I’m dealing with it.”

Because that’s what Crowder does. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t get upset or make excuses. He rolls with the punches, making the best out of every situation.

“I did get dealt a bad hand and I know it was in God’s plan. But I learned a lot of things from that time period,” he said. “I don’t even regret what happened. I think [the time I spent at Howard] grew me up. It made me do the right things and handle my business.”

Not even two years of arctic temperatures could kill that spirit.

“I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.