Buford announces himself as Craig delivers in NBA

Chris Pike Columnist

By Chris Pike, Chris Pike is a Roar Expert

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    The basketball gods were in peak form across the weekend with Torrey Craig shining in his starting debut in the NBA for the Denver Nuggets at the same time as his replacement Perrin Buford put himself in discussion as the NBL’s best player.

    Full credit to the Bullets for being able to replace Craig with a man like Buford who, while a different player in terms of scoring, rebounding and defending strongly, is providing plenty of the same things on the court.

    That has meant that after Craig’s signing with the Nuggets, the small forward spot at the Bullets has gone from potentially their great weakness this NBL season to remaining their strength and their form is now backing it up after big road wins in Cairns and Perth in Round 10.

    Following two seasons starting his stint in the NBL at the Cairns Taipans, Craig was a key signing for the Bullets last season as they returned to the league. While a raft of injuries to key players including Cameron Bairstow, Anthony Petrie and Adam Gibson meant the Bullets’ second half of the season didn’t go to plan, that was through no fault of Craig.

    He had cemented himself as likely the best all-round player in the NBL, equally capable of influencing the game at either end of the floor and finishing up averaging 15.2 points and 8.0 rebounds while taking out the league’s Best Defensive Player award.

    The Bullets had hopes of building their 2017-18 campaign around Craig too, until he proved too much to turn down for the Nuggets in the NBA. He banged down the door to earn an NBA contract and made his debut with Denver on November 29 against the Utah Jazz.

    He then returned to the G-League but received a last-minute recall for Friday’s clash at home in Denver to the New Orleans Pelicans. The only problem was he was in Oshkosh, Wisconsin when he received the call just before midnight on Thursday night.

    By 4.30am, he was at the airport and by 7am got to Denver and went straight to the Pepsi Centre for the team’s shootaround. By the time he arrived back at the building for the game that night, he was told he would be receiving his first start in the NBA.

    Far from overcome with the occasion, the 26-year-old made quite the statement with a massive blocked shot to send the game into overtime. He ended up playing 18 minutes, scoring six points along with four rebounds and two assists.

    It was the type of performance that could see him remain with the Nuggets on a permanent basis and it provided just a glimpse into what we had witnessed from Craig over the past three seasons in the NBL.

    Andrej Lemanis has now coached 301 games in the NBL to go with three championships and he is still at the helm of the Boomers. He knows what he’s doing and he knew that, when he was setting up his Bullets roster last season, Craig was the man he wanted.

    He helped to turn Craig from a handy NBL import to an outstanding all-round player and that performance all season long with the Bullets played a big part in him ending up in the NBA and being able to do what he did Friday night.

    Speaking after Brisbane’s third straight road victory on Saturday against the league-leading Wildcats in Perth, Lemanis was beaming with pride when asked about Craig’s heroics hours earlier.

    “I’m really happy for Torrey and proud of what he’s been able to achieve. For him to go ahead and achieve his dream and be able to continue to flourish in that environment, as a club at the Bullets we are stoked and I’m stoked for him,” Lemanis said.

    “When he got that opportunity during the off-season even though he was contracted to us, we thought that was fantastic because that’s who we are. We want to help people build and grow, and be the best they can be.

    “If that means you go on and flourish somewhere else that’s an awesome result for us. I’m really pleased for him and he is just such a good guy. It’s great to see him do well and for everyone in our group, it’s about growing and getting better. He provides a great example of that.”

    If Lemanis is proud of what Craig has gone on to achieve, that is equalled with the delight he is taking in seeing the impact that Buford is having.

    It’s not as if Buford has taken his time to settle in at the Bullets either. Right from the season-opener, he has been outstanding and in a league that features small forwards like Jean-Pierre Tokoto, Casey Prather, Mitch Creek, Brad Newley, Tom Abercrombie and Demitrius Conger, he could very well be at the top of the list.

    Perrin Buford of the Bullets in action

    (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

    And to be at the top of that list could very well make him the best player in the NBL. That’s no mean feat considering his rivals include teammate Travis Trice, that group of small forwards and Bryce Cotton, Jerome Randle, Casper Ware and Josh Boone.

    Buford’s numbers this season are outstanding with him going at 16.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks a game while shooting 53 per cent from the field and 42 per cent from three-point range.

    But there’s much more to his game than that. As he showed on Saturday in Perth, he can rise to the occasion against the league’s best after dominating his battle with Tokoto while coming up with massive plays. His two strong drives and baskets down the stretch secured the win for the Bullets as he racked up 24 points and eight rebounds before unluckily fouling out on a bad charge call.

    That was just two days after in Cairns, he delivered 17 points and 12 rebounds while delivering the match-winning block on ‘Scoochie’ Smith to secure the one-point win. That set the stage for Craig’s block with the Nuggets a little over 24 hours later.

    The voting system for the MVP in the NBL can throw up some surprising results, but Buford has a very strong case to make to be the league’s best player and he would be more than deserved winner.

    His coach, Lemanis, couldn’t agree more.

    “What he is, is somebody who plays defence, rebounds, is an excellent passer and he can get to the rim pretty much when he feels like it,” Lemanis said.

    “I feel like he is the most underrated import in the league because he doesn’t seek the fanfare, he just goes about his business and that’s exactly how we like to be as a team. He fits in perfectly with us.”

    NBL Round 10 results
    Cairns Taipans 74 lost to Brisbane Bullets 75

    New Zealand Breakers 75 lost to Adelaide 36ers 90

    Perth Wildcats 76 lost to Brisbane Bullets 82
    Illawarra Hawks 78 lost to Melbourne United 84

    Sydney Kings 88 defeated Cairns Taipans 69

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