After lengthy standoff in Phoenix, Jae Crowder is finally at peace as a Buck
Sweat trickled down Jay Crowder’s back, long sleeves wrapped around his strong arms like a 10-year NBA veteran stepping on hardwood. After yet another practice at the Georgia State Basketball Stadium in downtown Atlanta, another secret practice tucked away from regular-season games, Crowder’s coach turned on his cell phone. “Look what just happened!”
Crowder glanced at the screen. It was the afternoon of January 23rd and the Washington Wizards had just traded forward Rui Hachimura to the Los Angeles Lakers. The gray-haired swing was gripped by the pain of defeat. Did he just leave for Los Angeles? Crowder was incredulous. Nearly four months before the opening day of Phoenix’s training camp this 2022-23 regular season, while the Suns and Crowder mutually agreed to part ways and find a suitable trade, Phoenix failed to reach a three-team deal. which would send Crowder to Milwaukee and land Hachimura with the Suns.
“It was true. It was true,” Crowder told Sportzshala Sports. “I knew it had to do with him and I knew it meant right and we always had to go left. But for some reason, Washington went the right way. I cannot doubt it.”
And so Crowder took up his own device. He logged into Twitter, typed a message, and then blew up the message with three emojis: a clock with two hourglasses. If Crowder had gotten his way, the sand level would have drained to near zero. The calculation was far from secret. Just over two weeks separated Crowder from the deal deadline.
“Just showing the front office that I’m upset, hopefully now is the time,” Crowder said. “I also see articles, just like you.”
His patience was wearing thin. There was no room for reconciliation with the Phoenix. Sources told Sportzshala Sports that during the offseason, head coach Monty Williams told the 32-year-old that he would lose his starting spot with the Suns to shooter Cam Johnson, effectively ending the marriage between Crowder and the franchise. When asked for a more detailed context of why the partnership could not move forward, Crowder only confirmed that his strained relationship with Williams was at the center of this rift.
“Yes, we had disagreements,” he told Sportzshala Sports. Demanding more details, Crowder said: “They asked me to keep it, I’ll keep it. Now I’m gone, the same thing I said to everyone else: I left the situation. I wish them all the best, I’m leaving this behind.”
Now he’s moving forward in Milwaukee, finally landing at the Bucks on the afternoon deadline. He had never been to New York since the trade prior to Tuesday night’s game in Brooklyn, but there was a brief stop in Brooklyn after Phoenix traded Crowder to the Nets along with Johnson and Mikal Bridges as part of a blockbuster four-undefended pick in the first round for Kevin Durant. Crowder woke up to the headlines, buoyed by the greater likelihood of a landing with the Bucks. He knew the Nets weren’t his next team.
“No chance,” Crowder told Sportzshala Sports. “Look how many guys you have that look like me. I don’t have time for this.”
He returned to the Georgia State practice court and found out about his final deal with Milwaukee the same way he did about his failed three-team deal: from his coach’s phone after practice. He breathed a sigh of relief. While there was interest from Miami, where Crowder helped the Heat reach the 2020 NBA Finals, and Crowder’s hometown of Atlanta, where he camped during his months of solitude, Milwaukee always seemed to approach Crowder with the greatest of aplomb.
“They came to visit me,” Crowder said. With permission from Phoenix, Milwaukee’s management—from general manager John Horst to owner—flyed out to Atlanta and visited the swingman they coveted more than most. The Bucks have tried various schemes for the Crowder deal, offering Grayson Allen, sources told Sportzshala Sports, and a string of contracts such as Serge Ibaka, George Hill and Jordan Nwora, as well as second-round draft capital. Milwaukee considered other options, such as Pistons shooter Bojan Bogdanovic, the sources said, but Detroit demanded more than an unprotected first-round pick for their veteran wing. In the end, the deal with Brooklyn allowed Milwaukee to send a total of five-second round picks, shifting the salaries of Ibaka, Hill, and Nwora to Indiana, and grab Crowder without sacrificing Allen.
“At the end of the day, I landed where I wanted to land,” Crowder said. “I think I gained by just knowing myself as a player and my mindset. I never hesitated. Never hesitated in the process. From a month to two months… I was left with a plan of what it was and what I wanted to achieve. So I give credit to my sanity and to the fact that I stayed sane throughout the whole process, because I really wanted the process to end sooner than when it ended.”
Now he found himself on the opposite side of the 2021 Finals with his Suns leading the series 2-0 before the Bucks rallied in four straight games behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday to claim the league crown. He is not accustomed to changing attachments. Crowder was traded to LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers as part of Kyrie Irving’s 2017 blockbuster deal with Boston, making Crowder a Hall of Famer teammate he had just sparred with in the Eastern Conference Finals. Instead of hitting his 6ft 6in and 235lbs against Antetokounmpo, Crowder suddenly becomes a burly enforcer for a two-time MVP.
“We joked about it. Giannis still gives me shit about it,” Crowder said. “But it’s great. It’s great to be a part of this. [Phoenix] we had a great team. Two great teams are fighting each other. All this was respect. I think it shows what I bring, being able to fight this team at such a high level and then wanting me to come here, it just gave me the feeling that a championship team wanted me.”
The State of Georgia gave Crowder 24/7 access to its facilities, where he sometimes shared the floor with Georgia Tech product and former third overall Derrick Favors. He had the keys to the gym, like a hungry freshman looking for a part-time job, dodging the Panthers’ regular program in the middle of their own NCAA season.
“It was like a college atmosphere. But at the same time, I was still trying to get into a rhythm, trying to fit into a strict schedule that I was comfortable with, and I just stuck to it,” Crowder said.
This continued until Crowder flew to Miami for the All-Star break, until that half of the season in purgatory had completely melted away. Milwaukee sent four coaches to South Beach to coach Crowder and Bucks forward Bobby Portis recovering from an MCL sprain. Crowder was amazed at how many Milwaukee employees forfeited their mid-year break to help realize their big acquisition.
“It showed me that these guys were hugging me,” he said. “It showed me the camaraderie in the team.”
He pulled out a toothy grin after dressing at his counter in a brown tracksuit in the Barclays Center visitor locker room. He played just 15 minutes in the Bucks’ 118–104 win, standing mostly with a towel slung over his shoulder and yelling at his new brethren, still slowly integrating into Milwaukee’s system.
“Jay exceeded our expectations,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Coming in, his condition, he looks good. He doesn’t look out of breath or tired. He wants more. He wants to play the last few minutes, get reps, get up and down. He is in good condition physically and I think mentally, and we are delighted with what his body is like and where he is.”