Aaron Craft shows Warriors NBA-grade leadership

On a brisk mid-July Vegas evening, Aaron Craft has just finished leading the Warriors to an opening night win.

The rest of his Golden State Summer League team leaves out the back of the Thomas and Mack Center to head back to the hotel. Craft heads out the front door.

He makes his way out of the arena still wearing his Warriors jersey, and steps to the back of what would be a 20-minute taxi line with his wife.

She’s in town to watch him and he doesn’t want her to ride back by herself. They wait patiently as taxis sparingly appear in the distance.

A family in the front of the line who are waiting for a handicap accessible cab finally recognizes him. They are all wearing Warriors gear. And they are also from Santa Cruz, where Craft played all of last season in the D-League.

The 6-foot-2 Craft signs some autographs for them and then takes a big group picture before they board their cab home, their night — and trip to Vegas — fully made.

The effect he can have on fans is something Craft enjoys:

“Obviously it feels good, Santa Cruz takes their basketball very seriously so it’s really cool to see some people out here, and I’m just proud to represent.”

That’s how Craft is on the court too. He isn’t flashy, and doesn’t stand out for gaudy stats.

Through five Summer League games, Craft is averaging 5.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game. But what the stats can’t show is his undeniable influence on each contest.

This sway hasn’t been lost on head coach Luke Walton who knows what Craft brings to the table:

“Craft is as good of a leader as I’ve ever been around in basketball … Whether he scores 12 points or two points he’s always going to have a positive impact on the game.”

Sit courtside and Craft can be heard loud and clear. Every rebound he’s giving instructions, every stopped ball he’s calling out to Walton to let him know of any adjustments needed.

When he’s on the bench he’s the first one off the bench congratulating teammates and giving them advice.

At the end of the third quarter of the Warriors’ bounce-back win Wednesday night 83-67 win over the Sacramento Kings, all the coaches rise and hold up their index finger to signal to hold for one shot.

All the coaches and Craft.

Walton admits that having a player like him makes his life a lot easier:

“Aaron Craft is phenomenal. The coaches will lean over to me and be like what play do you want to run after a free throw and I’ll look at them and tell them, ‘We got Aaron Craft on the court, we don’t have to call anything, we’re fine.’ He’s that good of a leader that you can completely trust in what he sees and what he’s doing out there.”

The leadership that Craft shows is not by accident. He is the son of a former high school basketball coach.

He then went on to play four years at Ohio State University where he was named to the All-Defensive team every year.

And last year won an NBA D-League championship with Santa Cruz and defensive player of the year. The leadership he shows is shaped by all the years of experience.

Craft has accomplished almost everything he can in his career, and he says all that’s left is to prove it at the highest level:

“I got to make a roster, that’s the end of the deal. I’m just out here trying to prove to these guys I’m capable at playing at this level and hopefully that’s what happens. Right now the biggest thing is just to play some minutes and these guys are letting me play a lot.”

But with the Warriors roster maxed out at 15, it’s likely that he won’t be getting his chance with them.

Craft is fully aware of the situation though, and sees the Summer League as a league-wide tryout:

“It’s not necessarily (just) playing for Golden State, it’s playing for everyone else that might be in the stands. It’s a challenge but at the end of the day you’re still playing basketball and that’s all that really matters.”

If and when he does land that NBA contract, it won’t be heralded by any pundits or celebrated by fans. But his significance will be felt. Especially by his coaching staff.