Vaught's Views: Crawford fitting in just fine

December 23, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Kentucky had an 88-43 lead with just over a minute to play when Kentucky freshman Joe Crawford drove inside the William & Mary defense.

He was already having one of his best games at Kentucky and it was easy to assume he was either going to dunk the basketball, shoot a short shot or get fouled. Instead, he passed the ball to a wide-open Preston LeMaster in the corner and gave him a chance to score.

For a McDonald's All-American to give up a shot to get the ball to a walk-on player shows two things. One, Crawford is not selfish. Two, he understands what coach Tubby Smith expects from his players no matter what the score is.

"He's coming along well. He's a smart kid," Kentucky junior Kelenna Azubuike, who had 17 points and seven rebounds in the 92-47 romp here Wednesday, said. "He's picking things up well because he just plays hard. Even when he makes a mistake, he's going hard.


"He tries his best to fit in. That's what you've got to do here. That is the system here whether you are a freshman or a senior."

Crawford finished with a career-high 12 points, five rebounds, two assists and one steal in 17 minutes. He was 4-for-7 from the field, including 2-for-4 from 3-point range, and 2-for- 2 at the foul line.

Others did plenty of talking about his play

While it would be nice to know how he feels about his progress, Crawford and the other freshmen remain off limits to the media. However, others did plenty of talking about Crawford after his solid play against an opponent that was vastly overmatched from the start.

"He's defending well. He had some open looks," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "He just has to get more confidence in his shooting and start making more shots. He has the athleticism to create shots for himself and others. He's got all the tools.

"He needs to get playing time. Once he gets on the floor, he has to be aggressive."

Smith says older players such as Ravi Moss and Josh Carrier don't have the same overall skills as Crawford but their experience puts them in the right places while Crawford sometimes winds up in wrong spots.

Assistant coach Dave Hobbs says Crawford, like many freshman, has gone through "paralysis by analysis" while learning UK's complicated style of play.

"He's making progress," Hobbs said. "He's learning. He was thinking so much that he couldn't show the quickness and athleticism he has. Now he's gaining more confidence, learning where to be and not having to think about every little detail."

UK's most physical freshman

Crawford is UK's most physical freshman, a trait that could make him valuable in Southeastern Conference play. While Ramel Bradley, UK's other freshmen, put up nine shots in 13 minutes of reserve duty Wednesday, Crawford is more willing to let the game come to him even though older teammates understand how hard it is to adapt to a backup role.

"Joe is taking not getting to play all the time well," Kentucky senior Chuck Hayes, who had 18 points, said. "It takes a lot to get used to that. You've got to adapt from being 'the man' in high school to being a role player here. He's being very humble and mature about that."

Crawford has done that even though two other freshmen - Rajon Rondo and Randolph Morris - are starting while he's coming off the bench.

"That just makes him compete harder," Hayes said. "He works as hard as anybody on the team in practice. He sees guys that are freshmen like him starting and that just motivates him."

A "great kid and good teammate"

Hobbs says Crawford, a Detroit native, is a "great kid and good teammate." His play seems to validate that belief because he's done no showboating after a good play and quickly noted his mistake after a bad play.

"He wants to be a viable part of this team," Hobbs said. "He's not selfish. He's trying to do what Tubby wants."

What Smith would really like now is for Crawford to provide consistent outside shooting. He's only 15-for-38 from the field and 4-for-18 from 3-point range. He's mainly taken open outside shots, but he's not made as many as Smith would have liked.

"In practice, he's proven he can shoot," Hobbs said. "As he gets more comfortable, he'll make more because we know he can shoot the basketball. Every day he's going to get better and better."

So, by March Madness he could provide a needed boost for Kentucky's national championship hopes?

"That's hard to answer," Hobbs said. "But he is a kid with a lot of athletic ability. That's obvious to everyone. He also has a lot of strength which puts him ahead of most freshmen at this stage. He's getting better and has work to do, but he wants to get better and that means as much as anything."

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