PHOENIX — His cheeks were flushed and his cough was quite noticeable.
Just modest rewards for yet another well-crafted victory.
Minutes earlier, the former Ohio State guard told any coach within an ear shot that he was going to choose the sideline as his guide for the infamous, stamina-crushing challenge that concludes every Phoenix Suns’ pre-draft workout.
True to his word, Aaron Craft gracefully maneuvered up-and-down the white line as the seconds and minutes continued to tick off the scoreboard.
And when the buzzer sounded, the Findlay, Ohio native stood all alone. He had won going away, nearly lapping the next closest competitor in the 180-second conditioning test.
Winning isn’t the only measure NBA teams use when evaluating prospects this time of year. But in Craft’s case, it might be the one trait that helps him find his way into the league.
“Aaron’s excelled at pretty much everything his whole life,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said. “On the court or off the court, he’s a competitor. That’s a good way to put it. He’s a winner. His defense stands out. His ability to run a team and get guys in better spots stands out. He’s in terrific shape. He tied our high [of 28] in the conditioning drill in the end of our workout. And he could have kept going for another three minutes if he wanted to.
“We place a value on winning. I think you look throughout his career, he was also a high school quarterback. I think he won a lot there as well. It’s what he’s done his whole life. He just wins games.”
Friday nights under the lights at Liberty Benton High School, Saturday afternoons on the hardwood in Columbus, Wednesday mornings on a practice court at US Airways Center, it doesn’t really matter to the 6-foot-2 guard.
If there’s a competition to be won, he’s usually the one coming out on top.
Craft wasn’t just another high school quarterback, he was a prolific one. During his three years on the gridiron, the he led his teams to a combined 33-4 record, while combining 11,500 yards of total offense.
And as the de facto quarterback of Thad Matta’s Ohio State squad for four years, the 23-year-old wasn’t too shabby either. Playing in arguably the toughest basketball conference the country has to offer, Craft engineered four consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, not to mention berths in the Final Four and Elite Eight during his sophomore (2011-12) and junior (2012-13) campaigns.
But how did the undersized kid with a goofy shot and limited athleticism succeed so often during his collegiate career?
He competed. He didn’t give an inch on defense. He made the extra pass on offense. He dove for loose balls whether his team was up or down 20.
Quite simply, Craft has always relied on winning with the intangibles.
“I think I’m one of the more competitive guys out there,” said Craft, who averaged 9.8 points, 4.7 assists and 2.3 steals per game as a senior. “I do whatever it takes to win — offensively or defensively. It’s also a lot of things behind the scenes that a lot people don’t see, whether it’s stuff in the offseason or things before or after practice. That’s just who I am. I want to make myself better and my team better.”
Statistically-speaking, the 2013 Bob Cousy Award finalist didn’t dramatically improve over his four years as the Buckeyes’ starting point guard.
A career 33.3-percent shooter from distance and 45.9 from the field, Craft wasn’t much of a threat with his jumper, nor was he the type of player who could take over a game offensively.
However when it came down to winning time, few in the country were better than he was at making a play or two to help his team get over the hump.
“You have to give a lot credit and look at that part of the game,” Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek said on a player’s ability to execute late in games. “Certain guys, especially like [Craft], it’s like what is he going to do when he comes into the league? A lot of guys they get their NBA status and their money and then they just play basketball. A kid like him, it’s not going to matter how much money he makes. He’s going to compete. He’s going to do the little things to try and help a team win. You can’t have enough of those guys.”
While in theory that’s true, with only 60 names set to be called June 26, not every team-first prospect will be taken in the 2014 NBA Draft.
It’s the reason that for all of his accolades and career victories, Craft might be on the outside looking in when the second round wraps up.
With 75 early-entry candidates throwing their name into the pool this year, age and experience might lose out to youth and potential in the respective minds of inquiring general managers.
Still, Craft remains steadfast in his belief that the former still has its place at the next level.
“I think [playing four years in college] helps,” said Craft. “I think any type of experience is very helpful. Being at Ohio State, being able to play against some of the better players in the country and playing in big games and in big atmospheres, I think it helps a lot.”
When asked about a prolonged stint in the NCAA being a deterrent, McDonough opted for the status quo response, reiterating that the organization was just going to draft ‘whoever the best guys are.’
However, McDonough’s head coach, being himself a four-year talent out of Iowa State, was a little bit more candid on the issue, especially as it relates to Craft’s status three weeks from Thursday.
Having also been a former second-round pick, the 2014 Coach of the Year runner-up admitted that there is some sentimentality when evaluating players who might have to follow a similar career path to get into the NBA.
“I think every coach kind of looks at guys maybe how they were as a player,” said Hornacek, who was taken by the Suns with the No. 46 pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. “I hear a lot of times that this guy isn’t that fast or he isn’t that quick, and then I think that was kind of like me. And, I made it. You try to look past some of those things.”