Life on Mars: How Jae Crowder Has Carved His Own Lane with the Celtics

(Photo by Steve Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Whether it’s typing everything in capital letters, using “Bossmann” in his Instagram handle, muscling his way inside the paint or guarding the opposing team’s best wing player, Jae Crowder has been making bold statements all season for the playoff-bound Celtics.

Welcome to the unique world of No. 99. Welcome to Mars.

“It’s just something different,” Crowder explained to the NBPA about why he chose the jersey number and planet as the location in his Twitter profile. “I look at myself sometimes and wonder where are you really from because I’m not like the rest of these guys. I’m a ‘Bossmann,’ which is just a slogan I have attached on me. It really stands for all self-success. I do stuff like a boss in general.”

There are not many players in the NBA like Crowder, a key anchor for the Celtics who’s helped them achieve their best record (43-31) in five years. And on Wednesday, he plans to return to practice for the first time since spraining his right ankle on March 11 as the team prepares for the postseason.

At an uncanny 6’6″ and 235 pounds, Crowder can guard four positions, score inside like a power forward and pose as a threat in pick-and-pops for his size and improved shooting (45 percent). Along with his distinguishable long dreadlocks and rare jersey number—one of only six players in NBA history to wear it—he’s not afraid to stand in his own lane.

The 25-year-old is enjoying a career year in his second season with the Celtics, and has been an integral part of the gritty, hard-nosed squad. He’s scoring 14.4 points per game, which more than doubles his average from 2014-15. He’s also increased most of his statistical categories, including a big spike in steals per game (1.8; the highest on the team).

After spending his first two seasons in Dallas, where he learned from veteran mentor Vince Carter, Crowder was traded to Boston in Dec. 2014 and finished the season strong coming off the bench. His five-year, $35 million contract, which he signed in the offseason, looks like a bargain now. And it all started with the Celtics head coach opening the door and believing in him.

“I’ve got to thank Brad Stevens for giving me the opportunity to prevail and show how much of a player I can be in this league, and show that I can play the game the right way,” Crowder said.

“He just wants every guy to perform at their highest ability,” he added. “A lot of coaches don’t give players the freedom of doing what they do well, but it helps contribute to the team. I talk to him on the regular being one of the leaders on the team. He’s a really smart coach and really smart with the Xs and Os. He’s really laid back, so he doesn’t yell or do any of that stuff. He lets you play with a certain type of freedom, but at the same time, it’s all constructive about the way he wants you to play.”

Crowder has become the defensive ace for the Celtics, as he’s one of the best pound-for-pound athletes in the league with his unique combination of size, strength and speed. Most players at 6’6″ are around 215 pounds; he has an extra 20 pounds of muscle. He can switch on to many guards or bigs in a pick-and-roll, body up a player in the post and then has the awareness and quickness to anticipate and intercept passes around the arc.

When he’s on the floor with his defensive versatility, the Celtics’ perimeter defense is noticeably better, as evident in the past six games during which he’s been nursing the ankle sprain.

In the eight games he’s missed, the Celtics have allowed opponents to shoot about 36 percent from three-point range. But on the season, they’re the top team at 32.8 percent, along with being No. 2 in steals per game (9.2) and No. 5 in points off turnovers. The team has a knack for converting backcourt steals into transition scoring (16.0 fast-break points per game), highlighted by All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas leading the team’s distinct smaller-ball lineups.

Crowder relishes every defensive opportunity against the league’s best, notably Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Paul George.

“I think the toughest are the guys who can attack the rim very well at an efficient level and have a good outside shot,” he said. “I love [the challenge] because of the guy I am. You just have to show your teammates first that you’re willing to step up to that challenge, because it’s tough night in and night out to guard the best player and best scorer. But I take full responsibility for it.”

Not only is Crowder making his mark on defense, but on offense as well, transforming into one of the best young two-way players in the game. This season, Crowder has eclipsed the 20-point mark 11 times, compared to just two in 2014-15. When he’s on the floor, the Celtics are averaging 108.1 points per game, compared to 100.5 when he’s on the bench.

In the time he’s been out, Thomas has missed him in screen opportunities, as Crowder is a unique undersized pick-and-pop man. After averaging 0.7 three-point makes per game in 2014-15, he’s now at 1.7 while shooting a respectable 34.8 percent from downtown. He has made 98 field goals assisted by Thomas, the most by far from any Celtics teammate. One time in what may be the assist of the season, Thomas threw a behind-the-head pass all the way from the paint, in traffic, to the right baseline corner to Crowder for the three-pointer.

Overall, the biggest chunk of Crowder’s points come in the restricted area, as he’s made almost 45 percent of his shots there at a ridiculous 67 percent accuracy for a non-center. He’s ready to build on that come playoff time.

“When I go to the rim, I just to try to attack and finish,” he said. “I’m able to get past a lot of defenders with my first step or pump fake with them respecting my outside shot. I had a few chances in the playoffs [last season] where I was met by bigger guys at the rim. I know there’s going to be another playoff series where I’m going to have to finish plays.”


Basketball in His Blood

Growing up in Villa Rica, Ga., Crowder learned all of his basketball knowledge from his father, Corey, and cites him as his biggest inspiration. They talk every game. “I wish him good luck and remind him to play hard and I love him,” Corey said. “After the game, I tell him how proud of him I am and that I love him.”

Corey played professionally in Europe, as well as two seasons in the NBA for the Jazz and Spurs. Last month, the Jazz presented Crowder with a pair of his father’s game-worn sneakers that had been in storage for more than 20 years. Crowder reflected on those many years together with his father. 

“I’m thankful we’ve built a great relationship,” Crowder said. “I got to see him train a lot and see how to be professional, and walk behind him each and every day and see the stuff he went through to be a professional basketball player. That’s my role model and that’s my mentor. He’s everything.”

Even so, Corey never put pressure on his son to only be a basketball player. At Villa Rica High School, Crowder was the starting quarterback while also playing varsity hoops. Because he experienced success at the pro level, Corey taught his son the road map.

Most importantly, before sports or whatever Crowder strived to be, his father stressed the importance of being a model citizen.

“My role with Jae was first and foremost for him to be a young, respectful black man,” Corey said. “The sports stuff for me is always secondary because you can be the best [athlete] in the world, but if you’re not a good person, you won’t go far in life. My agreement with him was I will guide you and help you get there, but you have to do the work.”

With that game plan in mind, when Crowder was 18—after his first year in junior college at South Georgia Tech—he laid out a specific vision with his father. “He said I want to play basketball and I want to make money,” Corey recalled.

From there, Crowder was off to the races. He had something special inside of him, something that could not be taught. Corey saw it the first time he saw his son play pickup basketball.

“What I saw in Jae was that he was a fighter,” Corey said. “I can teach you how to shoot, I can teach you how to dribble, but I cannot teach you how to be a fighter. That’s something either you have or you don’t.”

A recent father himself, Crowder looks to bring all that Corey instilled in him to his two-year-old daughter, Jada. His recent injury allowed him to stay home and spend time with her. She has influenced a shift in his life, offering him a reason to always stay upbeat even when he’s on the road.

“You have to change the way you live because you’re not living for yourself anymore,” Crowder said. “It’s added motivation to get up and go to work because you know you have to provide for your seed. I’ve gone for long periods of time [without seeing her] and that’s tough especially with her being two. But other than that, it’s great. She knows what daddy does. She knows that I play basketball.”


A photo posted by 99 PROBLEMS (@bossmann99) on


An Unbreakable Bond

Beyond his family, Crowder has found motivation through one of his closest friends, Bulls star Jimmy Butler, who was his teammate at Marquette during the 2010-11 season. Between both players attending junior college and being overlooked in the NBA draft—Crowder was the 34th pick in 2012 and Butler went 30th in 2011—they have very similar stories. Combine that with their similar playing position and ability to impact the game on both ends of the court, their close relationship comes to even more fruition.

“Last time we broke bread and talked over dinner, he wanted to work out with me and vice versa because I know he’s going to push me to a limit, and we just want to make each other better,” Crowder said. “We want to start working out together in the summer time. We talk a lot and we go out to dinner when we play one another. That’s one of my best friends in the NBA. That’s my brother.”

“I think you always have a bond when you go to the same school and go to war with a guy like Jae under Buzz [Williams],” Butler told the NBPA. “He went to Juco just like I went to the Juco, so that just shows even more how much we have in common—overlooked in the draft, made our mark in this league and we’re here to stay. More than a basketball player, he’s an incredible human being, a great father and somebody that these kids can look up to because he’s the definition of what hard work and dedication can get you in this life.”

always a blessing to play against then have dinner with my brotha @bossmann99 .. LOVE BRO!!

A photo posted by Jimmy Butler (@jimmybutler) on

Crowder and Butler have always played with a chip on their shoulder, and now they’re the key glue guys for their respective teams in the Eastern Conference. Their drive and motivation never stop, a tribute to Marquette’s basketball culture that groomed them into NBA game-changers.

“It’s a blue-collar mentality,” Crowder said of Marquette. “Me and Jimmy, we played in the Big East when it was really tough. It helped mold us and grew us to become everyday-type players. That’s the way our coach coached us when we were at Marquette. You don’t play unless you play hard and unless you play with a certain type of swag.”

That swag is something that Crowder carries not only on the court, but also in his everyday life—so much so that he describes himself as a “Bossmann,” and has a habit of always using capital letters for emphasis from texting to tweeting. Crowder wants to be different and wants to stand out—and he’s doing both in Boston.

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