The legend of Aaron Craft began long before he became the Big Ten's peskiest presence. "All the way back in middle school," says Buckeyes power forward Jared Sullinger, "everyone would talk about how Aaron Craft was the best defender in the state." Sullinger played for the Columbus Jaguars AAU squad and considered Craft an enemy after losing multiple times to his All-Ohio Red team. It is preferable to play with a pest than against him, and so by the time the two players reached high school, they joined forces on All-Ohio Red, with Craft serving as a three-star role player while Sullinger became a McDonald's All-American. Sullinger helped recruit Craft to Columbus, where last season he served as its freshman sixth man while Sullinger was a player of the year finalist. The 6'2" Craft may never have that status, but he should already be regarded as a star.
SI's study found Craft to be the most valuable defender (86.3 DRating) on the country's fifth-best defensive team—a stunning feat for a freshman guard, especially since he was playing alongside Big Ten All-Defensive Team mainstay David Lighty (whose 86.6 DRating was second). Craft's conference-leading 1.97 steals per game barely told the story of his ability to produce turnovers. Of the Buckeyes' defensive possessions in which he participated, 32.9% ended in turnovers, the highest rate of any player included in this study. SI's analysis rewarded him for drawing offensive fouls, for forcing opponents to throw away passes and, best of all, for disrupting drives enough to enable a teammate to get a steal. (When told of SI's methods for rating defenders Craft said, "Finally, someone who understands! I lose a lot of those steals, and I hate it.")
The education of this turnover-creating machine started with Craft's father, John, a youth coach who was fond of a drill called brick lane slides. Aaron would have to shuffle from block to block for 30 seconds at top speed, arms out, palms down, gripping a brick in each hand. "We'd wrap them in a lot of tape," Craft says, "so they wouldn't make marks on the court." He recalls first doing the drill in the third grade. Craft's lateral quickness is his greatest asset, followed by his strength; according to Ohio State coach Thad Matta, Craft arrived in Columbus last fall in the best physical condition of any freshman during Matta's tenure. "He bench-pressed 185 pounds 24 times the day he arrived," the coach says. "He was ready."
These qualities enable Craft to walk the fine line between smothering his man and assaulting him. His defensive checklist: "Go chest-to-chest, beat him to the spot, hands to the side"—to avoid fouls, he says. Matta's mantra is "fouling is a weakness"; he preaches perfect precatch positioning, holds refereed practices and forces players to review film of every foul as a corrective measure. It was no coincidence that last year's Buckeyes had the nation's lowest team free throw rate (20.6). This study helped to illustrate just how much Ohio State lost with the graduation of the 6'5" Lighty, the team's second-best turnover producer and foul avoider who was versatile enough to guard all five positions.
Sullinger fouled sparingly—and opponents scored over him with relative ease (a OppFG% of 48.5)—in part because he was too valuable on offense to risk foul trouble. And yet Sullinger halted so many possessions by crashing the boards (grabbing 26.2% of opponents' misses) that he finished with the team's third-best defensive rating (87.8). "Jared is a selfish rebounder," says Matta, "and that's a great trait to have." Sullinger should be a more agile defender at 265 pounds than he was at his freshman weight of 280; he slimmed down this off-season with extra conditioning and a healthier diet. Matta has a different nutritional plan for his point guard, though. When the coach finished an interview at the Schottenstein Center and was told that Craft—who was next up—was at lunch, Matta said, "Aaron's still eating? Nails, I hope."
ADJUSTED DEFENSIVE RATING: 89.7
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