Stability has returned to Jae Crowder’s life for the first time in a year.
He hasn’t been traded in the offseason. Once training camp rolls around, he won’t have to acclimate himself to a new locker room. And he won’t have to balance basketball with sorrow in his personal life.
Next season, Crowder will play an important role for a Utah Jazz team looking to continue the gradual improvement of the franchise the past two seasons. That progression is welcome to Crowder, who is coming off the most difficult season of his career.
It started last summer, when he was traded from the Boston Celtics to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of the Kyrie Irving deal. On the court, Crowder struggled adjusting to a new role and teammates. Off the court, he was mourning the death of his mother, Helen, from cancer. Crowder was extremely close with his mother, and at times thought about taking a hiatus from the NBA.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult,” Crowder told The Tribune. “It was hard being thrown into the fire. But, from Day One, the locker room and my teammates [in Utah] were great. The coaching staff was great. … It helped build toughness.”
There still are difficult days for Crowder, which he knows comes with the loss of a parent. When he feels frustrated, one person who Crowder leans on is his father, Corey, a former NBA player who once suited up for the Jazz.
The two men talk regularly about basketball and life in equal measure. Corey became a fixture at Jazz games after Jae was traded to Utah, and his father’s presence has become a haven of sorts.
“My father helped tremendously,” Crowder said. “He was the one guy I leaned on the most. My dad has been a main factor in me getting over the situation. That’s what I expect him to do. He knows I listen to him, and we have a great relationship.”
Crowder is known as one of the toughest players in the NBA, and that toughness was what Crowder needed last season. With both Boston and Utah, Crowder was part of a system that preached ball movement, spreading the floor and perimeter shots. In Cleveland, Crowder was often standing in a corner offensively and out of rhythm.
Crowder averaged only 8.6 points per game with the Cavaliers; that average jumped to almost 12 ppg with the Jazz. He averaged almost 28 minutes per game in Utah, earning crucial moments as part of the Jazz’s closing lineup and relishing his role as a playoff enforcer against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And yet, Crowder is focused on improving this coming season.
“I felt like my conditioning wasn’t where I needed it to be,” Crowder said. “When I look back at the playoffs, I got fatigued mentally and physically. I have to be better at being more fresh. I’m always going to be tough on myself. I’m just trying to be an all-around player. I know that I need to sharpen all of my tools.”
As a power forward, the ability to shoot from the perimeter is one of the more unique tools Crowder brings to Utah. He struggled shooting last season at 38 percent — but if he can return to the form he flashed in the 2015-16 season in shooting 46 percent, the Jazz will be even more difficult to beat.
What’s hard to beat is comfort, and Crowder has that in Utah. While he’s spent most of the offseason working out in Florida, the former Marquette star happily flew to Las Vegas to watch some summer league games and hang out with his teammates. His presence makes the Jazz one of the deepest teams in the league and now that the hardest year of his life is over, Crowder feels he’s the better for having gone through it.
Now, he can concentrate on basketball.
“This summer has definitely given me a time to focus on what I need to work on and not worry about the other stuff,” Crowder said. “It’s been a good summer. My head has been clear.”