Torrey Craig

Torrey Craig, fitting in seamlessly, believes Bulls own potential to surprise

Veteran wing defender is bringing competitive edge to practice and games

Denver Nuggets v Chicago Bulls
Torrey Craig believes the Bulls own the potential to surprise this season.

Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

Torrey Craig returned to where his NBA opportunity began late Saturday, in advance of the Chicago Bulls’ preseason matchup with the Denver Nuggets on Sunday.

Undrafted out of University of South Carolina Upstate, Craig spent three seasons playing in Australia before the Nuggets---where a certain assistant general manager named Artūras Karnišovas worked---signed him for the 2017-18 season.

“Oh man, they changed my life,” Craig said following Saturday’s practice at the Advocate Center. “They signed me on a two-way and (coach) Michael Malone was starting me. The two-way put my foot in the door and then Coach Malone gave me an opportunity to play. Once he saw how I could impact games and help winning, he kept me in the rotation. That kind of jump-started my career.”

It’s why, even though the Nuggets eliminated his Phoenix Suns in the second round of last season’s playoffs, Craig felt happy for former teammates like Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray when Denver captured its first NBA title last season.

And while the Bulls obviously aren’t considered a championship contending team coming off a non-playoff season, Craig insists there’s serious potential. He said he even likes how nobody is talking about the Bulls’ chances because the underdog mentality can be beneficial.

“We get out of this season what we put in. If we’re not playing with energy or effort or guys aren’t sacrificing, then we’re going to struggle. If everybody buys in, I think we can beat anybody in this league,” Craig said. “We have good players, a lot of talent. We have defenders. We have scorers. We have shooters. We have a great coaching staff. So if we put all that together, we can win every single night in this league. It just comes down to how consistent we’re going to be.”

Craig’s defensive energy, communication and competitive edge are as consistent as a metronome. It’s how he has carved out a reputation as a plug-and-play contributor on playoff teams.

It’s also why, in part, he chose the Bulls in free agency.

“I was looking at teams that could use what I do the most, where I could impact games the most. This was one of the places that fit,” Craig said. “Last year, they lost a lot of close games. And a lot of games they lost, they were just missing a little bit of physical toughness, mental toughness, a little bit of leadership. I come here and try to provide that.”

The relationship with Karnišovas didn’t hurt.

“We won a lot of games together,” Craig said. “I enjoyed playing for that organization and him there. So here, it should be no different.”

Craig’s communication has stood out to his teammates and coaches.

“He’s a true professional, been around the league, played on winning teams. He just knows where to be, very unselfish,” Zach LaVine said. “Obviously, we know how good he is on defense. Me and DeMar (DeRozan) have had to deal with him. We’re glad to have him.”

Added coach Billy Donovan: “He’s been unbelievable. I think those are rare qualities where you can plug him in with anybody. Because everything he does is always about the sacrifice things to make the group better. And every team needs that.”

Donovan added that Craig routinely calls out opposing teams’ actions as they begin. In this sense, he is similar to Alex Caruso, with whom Craig already is forming a defensive identity.

“I was even talking to AC about it during (last) game: As long as we play hard and aggressive, attacking the ball and flying around covering for one another, creating turnovers, that makes basketball a lot of fun and contributes to winning.”

On one possession during Thursday’s double overtime victory over the same Nuggets, Craig and Caruso paired on a double-team along the sideline that led to a steal and 3-pointer from Coby White in transition. These are the type of plays that can energize a team and deflate an opponent.

“It was just random. I saw the ball go that way and I was pursuing the ball. I saw AC right there and I just screamed at him, ‘Trap, trap, trap,’” Craig said. “A lot of times playing like that is mostly instinct and just trusting your ability to be active and get deflections and get steals and get out in transition.

“Once you get a steal and out in transition, it puts pressure on their defense not to foul and protect the rim or free-throw line. It disrupts them offensively because you’re so physical with him and so active. Especially over the course of a game, it will wear on teams. That’s when you’re really effective.”

Just like Craig plans to be this season.

“I just be myself. I don’t try to do too much. Just stay within my means and do what I’m good at and bring what I know I can bring,” he said. “Fortunately, that’s good for every team. Every team can use the type of things that I’m good at. So it’s not hard for me to fit in at all.”

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