It is easy to label improved health as the biggest reason Jaye Crockett is playing the best basketball of his career.
The Texas Tech junior forward leads the team in scoring at 15.3 points per game, a figure good for fifth in the Big 12. His 8.3 rebounds per contest are fourth in the league and tops on the team, and he is among the nation’s leading sixth men in both categories.
Crockett had surgery for a sports hernia during the summer, a nagging injury that plagued him all of last season. Playing free from lingering pain, Crockett has responded with a substantial rise in energy level, his motor always churning as the first player off the bench.
But to credit his evolution solely to a clean bill of health would be to ignore the work Crockett has done to make some vital additions to his offensive arsenal.
“If you look at the effort he’s put in on the offensive end, it’s incredible,” Tech assistant coach Jeremy Cox said. “That’s something he should be commended for.”
Crockett has fit well into interim coach Chris Walker’s up-tempo offense. At 6-foot-7, 200 pounds he runs the floor like a guard and is the team’s best finisher at the rim. This has always been a big part of Crockett’s game. He was Tech’s leading scorer during Big 12 play last season, with much of his offense coming by way of the dirty work he’s never been afraid to do inside, even while often giving up considerable size.
But the polish the Red Raiders have seen out of Crockett this season hasn’t always been there. Walker said the junior is playing with greater confidence this season, and he’s been more efficient as a result.
Crockett is shooting 64.8 percent from the floor, second best in the Big 12 and 10th in the nation. His bread and butter is the 10-to-15 foot baseline jumper that he has hit with great consistency this season, though it’s far from the only way he’s putting the ball in the basket. True to form, Crockett deflects credit for his red-hot shooting, citing improved play-making ability from the team’s new crop of guards as the reason he’s been able to find better shot selection.
“When Josh (Gray), Daylen (Robinson), Trency (Jackson) get in the lane, they’re getting three people on them,” Crockett said. “So they’ll kick it out and you have to be ready to shoot.”
And he has.
“That’s a credit to him,” Cox said. “He’s reaping the rewards of a lot of time spent in the gym.”
Even during the weeks this offseason when Crockett was unable to practice full-speed while recovering from his surgery, he was putting up shots, experimenting with his footwork and pondering ways to expand his repertoire. His step-back jumper along the baseline has caused a dilemma for bigger defenders guarding him. Get too close, and he has the ability to drive past with one long stride. Give him too much space, and he’ll bury the shot.
Crockett has also found success this season with a turnaround jumper that wasn’t in his bag of tricks a year ago. And he hasn’t even put to use the move he said he’s worked on most.
“The one-dribble pull-up (jumper),” Crockett said when asked which offensive move he has developed the furthest. “I haven’t done it too much, but I’ve been working on that a lot. That’s the main thing I’ve focused on, and just set shots around the rim.”
Even the 3-point shot has become a part of Crockett’s game this season. Last year, he attempted just 14 long-range shots, connecting on four. He has already made that many through six games this season (4 of 10). If he continues to develop that dimension, it can be an even bigger boon to Tech’s hopes of spreading the floor and creating space for its guards to initiate offense.
“With our offense, we want to get guys wide so the guards can work a little bit,” Crockett said. “So we might do a little four-out (of the lane), one-in type of thing so the guards can work. I worked on my three a little bit because Coach Walker told me that on the pick-and-pop, I might end up shooting the three sometimes, so I’ve been working on it.”
The next evolution for Crockett, Cox said, will be making lightning-quick decisions once he receives the ball off the pick-and-pop, whether that’s immediately putting up the shot, or quickly driving by his defender and creating a shot for himself or others. That rapid decision-making process is aimed at making a defense uncomfortable and forcing it to jump out of position.
Crockett has attributed some his growth to Cox, who was brought onto the staff by former coach Billy Gillispie carrying an impressive resume highlighting his work with post players. That included Patrick Patterson at Kentucky — Cox was an assistant under Gillispie there — who now plays for the Houston Rockets.
“He’s taught me so much this year, real quick,” Crockett said. “We didn’t have too much time, but I’ve learned a lot from Coach Cox. He’s helped me get a lot of skills down low.”
Cox’s job, he said, has been made easy by having a player as eager to learn as Crockett, who also been invaluable as a leader on a team with seven new players.
“He’s been second to none,” Cox said. “It’s a lost art being able to communicate the way he does. He’s really a throwback player in that regard.”
The Tech coaching staff has little doubt Crockett’s play will stand the test of Big 12 competition — and then some.
Asked whether Crockett could end the season as an all-Big 12 player, Walker didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” he said. “No question.”
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