At first glance, Jae Crowder and Grayson Allen might seem like the Jazz’s version of the Odd Couple.
One looks like he was carved out of a mountain by Michelangelo himself, the other like a skateboarding neighborhood dude you’d call to mow your lawn.
One has lines of wisdom in his face, etched there by care and labor thrust into 463 NBA games, the other is all bouncy and fresh-faced, like a communications major wearing a Star Wars T-shirt, carrying a Pee Chee folder, lallygagging across campus.
One has the bearing of a serious, grown man who, like E.F. Hutton, when he talks, people listen, the other the smirky countenance of a kid whose word people might doubt.
One, according to basketball-reference.com, has the nickname “The Beast,” the other has two nicknames listed — G-money (sorry, that one is absolutely burnt around here) and Deebo.
Differences and disparities aside, bonded the rookie and the veteran most certainly are, to the benefit of both.
Nobody’s quite sure when it started or how it happened, but Crowder has put his big arm around Allen, eager to teach the first-year player not just how to survive, but to thrive, not just how to be a pro, but to be a pro’s pro.
Quin Snyder observed it this way: “Certain veterans will take young guys under their wing and they refer to them as their rooks. Grayson is Jae Crowder’s rook. I don’t think he could have picked a better guy. Really, Jae picked him. That says a lot about Grayson. I like it. I like that feel and I like that fit.”
Allen, knowing that while he has played basketball for most of his life, four years of it at Duke, is all-fired eager to consume as much information about the NBA game as he can, as quickly as he can, and when E.F. Crowder speaks, he, too, listens, taking ownership of the mentor, same as it is the other way around.
“He’s been my vet,” Allen said. “We work in the same groups a lot, me, him and Donovan [Mitchell]. He’s helping me out with all kinds of stuff. Little things in practice. Preventing me from doing something wrong. Like when I’m in the corner, shoot the shot, sprint back, don’t even go for the rebound. Little things like that, preventing me from getting yelled at.”
Allen said his basketball syllabus is full of new tidbits and notes he’s attempting to commit to memory and to turn into habits:
“I’m learning a lot each game, especially defensively. The game today was faster than the last game, so I had to do everything at a faster speed. Offensively, I’m trying to learn the plays from last year and the new plays that we’re putting in. I need to do a lot of film study, learning the right spots to go to and the right reads to make. The game experience is really helping me speed it up. The more I study, the more I can just be in a flow where I don’t have to think. Once they become habits, once I drill them in, I don’t have to think about them anymore. I just play.”
He gave a few more examples.
“Being ready on screens. There’s so much pick and roll in the NBA. I always have to be ready to get up into the ball. A lot of times, when you’re expecting it to come and it doesn’t, then that kind of messes you up. So, I have to get used to that. As soon as you hear it, you have to flip your feet. And pulling over when I’m off the ball, I have to be in the right spots, in the right rotations.”
He said he knows Snyder’s sets, but processing the correct reads out of the sets is a different matter. And then there’s the counterintuitive nuances he must master.
“If there’s a turnover, you don’t run toward the ball to try to make a play, you run back on defense,” he said. “I’m learning. I’m getting comfortable. I prefer to play without thinking, but that comes with experience, practicing and playing — until it’s all second nature.”
Crowder, who is now entering his seventh NBA season, said the professor-pupil relationship is a healthy one, educating Allen, doing him a favor by instructing when adjustments are called for and encouraging when the rookie’s dauber dips down.
“I’m taking him in,” he said. “I just want to show him how to work. I’m a worker and I feel like he already has that DNA in him. He’s not afraid of anything. He’s fierce. I like him as a young player. He’s locked in. I just want to show him a routine, the right way to do stuff, show him how to work. When I came in, I had good guys to show me the way, the way at an NBA level. I want to do that for him, show him how to take care of his body, how to live, what all that stuff means. It’s a game within a game. All the stuff off the court is preparation for when the lights come on.”
Bit by bit, the lights are coming on, up above in the arena and inside Allen’s head.
“He applies it all,” Crowder said. “That’s what I like. I don’t want to talk to a wall. I don’t get after him, but when he messes up, I show him the right way, just explain how to get better. At this level, things can move fast. The games come fast. I just want to get him ready for that. I don’t want him to get to Christmas and go, like, ‘I’m tired.’ Just take it one day at a time over a long season.”
After a recent preseason game, Crowder nodded at Allen in the locker room, as though to acknowledge that he knew that Allen knew that he knew that Allen knew that it was all coming along.
“I’m like a proud father,” Crowder said. “Seeing him improve, it makes me feel good.”
Then, big-time approval came from the vet: “The sky’s the limit for him. I’m not going to put a limit on it. He wants to be a good player in this league. Once you have that mindset, you’re on the right path.”
Other Jazz veterans are also offering their expertise to Allen, helping him acclimate. But guys such as Joe Ingles have no problem acquiescing to Crowder in his primary mentoring role.
“I really like the kid,” Ingles said. “He works hard and he’s passionate about playing well and winning. It’s hard to come into a team when you’re the only different player, pretty much. We’re all going to help him, we all want to help him.”
Mitchell said as the vets give, they’ll get.
“I’m sure, 100 percent, Grayson’s going to help us win this year.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.