Rivals.com ranked him the ninth best prospect in a stellar 2004 class headlined by Dwight Howard. He was considered the most talented in the top-rated recruiting class at Kentucky that also consisted of Rajon Rondo, Randolph Morris, and Ramel Bradley.
Joseph Reshard Crawford II was a McDonald’s All-American who had only one dream his entire life – to play in the NBA. In that dream, he said, “Sometimes I’d be with the Lakers, Bulls, or Pistons. But the dream to play in the NBA never changed.”
At the age of 12, he could already dunk. Not only was he gaining a reputation in his hometown of Detroit, he was garnering national attention from scouts and analysts. “That was when I started thinking that playing in the NBA could really happen,” he said.
First Three Seasons at UK
Kentucky was only supposed to be a stopover for Crawford. Rondo only stayed two years while Morris stayed three. Crawford stayed all four years. His tumultuous time at Kentucky was highlighted by nearly transferring his freshman year.
“I was having difficulties adjusting. I always worked hard but I had trouble waiting for my turn, and I learned from that,” he said. “What made me come back was my love for Kentucky. I loved the support that the fans showed me.”
However, the scorer’s mentality that Crawford had never fit in with Coach Tubby Smith’s system. “It was hard for me to come in and change my game to his style of play,” he said. “I was used to taking over a game or taking a certain shot, but he didn’t like some of the shots I took.”
Although he calls Smith a great coach, Crawford feels that he would have never gotten drafted if Coach Billy Gillispie hadn’t taken over after Smith’s departure for Minnesota. “People didn’t get to see my game the three years prior to Coach G. I was that close to breaking through and showing everybody that I was really good,” he said.
Senior Year Under Billy Gillispie
Still, the season with Gillisipie was the hardest year of Crawford’s life. He felt immense pressure not only as a senior leader under a new head coach, but also because time was ticking – it was the last year he could show NBA scouts that he had what it took to play at the next level.
“Ramel [Bradley] and I carried all of that weight on our shoulders. There were times when we wanted to quit because of that pressure,” he said. “He would be in the doghouse or I would be in the doghouse, but we helped each other through it. No one knew what we were going through.”
The relationship with Gillispie was rocky from the start. Gillispie’s philosophy was to push a player as far as possible without breaking him in order to strengthen his mental and physical toughness. “He tried to get the most out of us so he put us through a lot. He had to know that you were with him.”
It was almost like a test. Gillispie brought Crawford off the bench in several games and even benched him at times in order to motivate him. It worked. “At about the middle part of the season, he [Gillispie] just let me play, and that’s all I asked for,” Crawford said. “All I ever wanted from a coach at Kentucky was to just let me play.”
After starting the regular season 6-7, the Wildcats went on a remarkable 12-4 conference run to make the NCAA Tournament. When 11th-seeded Kentucky lost to 6th-seeded Marquette in the first round, Crawford broke down in tears in a game where he went 13-22 and scored 35 points.
“I cried because of everything I had gone through to get to that point. If we would’ve just won that game, I would’ve had a little more time to show people how far I could’ve taken that team,” he said.
Keeping the Dream Alive
Two years later, Crawford is still trying to prove that he deserves to be in the Association. After getting drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers 58th overall, he spent time in the NBDL with the Los Angeles D-Fenders, signed a contract with the New York Knicks, and played in China.
This past summer, he played on the Orlando Magic’s summer league team. His 29-point breakout performance against the New Jersey Nets in the third game drew a lot of buzz from NBA teams. His subsequent games of 17 points and 15 points were also solid.
As a result, Crawford signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Sacramento Kings to participate in training camp. “It’s a great situation because they need a guard like me,” he said. “They’ll evaluate me for a month, I’ll practice with the team, and then I’ll play in the preseason games.”
If Crawford makes the team, he’ll join fellow former Wildcat DeMarcus Cousins, whom he met a summer ago in Lexington. “I played pickup games with John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, and DeMarcus Cousins before their freshmen year. It was a fun experence and I got the chance to see how talented they were first-hand,” he said. “They reminded me so much of my own recruiting class.”
Even though he’s two years removed from college, Crawford still calls returning to Kentucky his freshman year the best decision he has ever made. “Basketball is so much bigger than just on the court. It’s a culture,” he said. “I still get approached by people everywhere. Kentucky has so many fans, and they are always going to support me. I will always be grateful for that.”
Joining Jordan in the NBA
Crawford draws his strength from that support. When his younger brother Jordan recently got drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, it took an even bigger weight off his shoulders.
“For my brother to make it, it felt like I made it. All those years growing up, I taught him things and showed him things,” he said. “I was with him the whole summer when he was working out with teams. I know I’m going to make it, but now, I don’t have to worry about him making it.”
The two Crawfords went down separate paths. Jordan didn’t receive nearly the attention Joe did coming out of high school, but it only took Jordan two years of playing time in college to become a heralded NBA prospect.
But, Joe knows that “everybody has a different road. No one’s road is smooth. You just have to accept it. You can’t be jealous of someone else’s road. You just have to set your road. Play hard and be determined.”
Some people were born to play basketball; Joe Crawford is one of those people. Whether it’s the Kings or another team, Crawford knows that his time in the NBA is coming. He said, “I have a really good feeling about this. I’m going to make it, I know. I have no doubt about it.”