Torrey Craig reflects on his NBL journey, and how it helped his NBA dream

Much has changed in the life of Torrey Craig.

Just two years ago, Craig was completing a trailblazing first campaign with the Brisbane Bullets. He was named the NBL’s best defender that season, earning All-NBL Second Team honours in the process. A resounding season furthered his NBA dreams, but they remained a fantasy as he left Australian shores in June 2017.

Now, as the 2019 NBA postseason approaches, Craig has achieved his lifelong ambition. For lack of a better term, his NBA career has blown up over the past 18 months. A Summer League tryout with the Denver Nuggets led to a two-way contract, which provided Craig an opportunity at the NBA level. It was one he took with open arms. Craig quickly became a permanent fixture in Denver’s rotation after debuting in December 2017. He currently averages over 20 minutes per game, on a Nuggets side fighting with Golden State for the best record in the Western Conference.

Craig has found NBA riches in Denver, but that doesn’t mean he is fully disconnected from his time down under. He misses the Queensland weather. The beaches, too, along with the relaxed lifestyle bounce through his mind when reflecting on three years in Australia. There is one specific delicacy, above all else, that has Craig yearning for days spent in Australia’s northeast.

“I still haven’t had an açaí bowl like they had in Australia,” Craig noted through a smile, when speaking with The Pick and Roll. “I’ve been looking everywhere for one.”

Craig’s verbiage, in what amounts to a frivolous discussion, is equal parts indicative of how a South Carolina native became immersed in Australian culture and ironic all the same. The 28-year-old may be exploring North America for frozen berries done right -- done the Aussie way, perhaps -- but it appears a small price to pay for someone who is no longer searching for career aspirations.

Denver rewarded Craig with a two-year contract extension last July. It ensures he will be with the franchise through the 2019-20 NBA season. Craig is now established within the NBA world he has long chased.

“It has all happened so fast,” Craig says of his career ascension. “Two years ago, I was just over [in Australia] and it feels kind of surreal at the moment but it’s great playing with these guys. To make that jump from playing in the NBL, to be playing in the NBA is an amazing feeling.”

Craig is yet another NBL success story, one of many graduates this decade to infiltrate the NBA after a stint in Australia’s leading professional league. A distinguished collegiate career placed him on the radar of NBA teams, although greater development was required. Craig arrived in Australia as a raw 23-year-old athlete without any professional experience. Three years later he left for the waiting arms of the NBA, and did so with a tidal wave of support from a country that became ingrained into his psyche.

“I always say that Australia is like my second home,” Craig said. “I was there for three years, so I got used to the culture and used to the people.”

There is an unquestionable groundswell of Australian support for Craig. The NBL’s official social media channels are flooded with Nuggets content, always featuring their favourite American. The appreciation is mutual. When the Wildcats visited Denver last September, it was Craig who acted as a pseudo conduit for the local media. He spoke glowingly of the NBL and the quality of international basketball. Unsurprisingly, this further endeared the Nuggets player to his Australian fans, and only amplified the well wishes being sent his way from half way around the world.

“For me to come over here and play well, and know that people in Australia still support me, it means a lot,” says Craig. “A lot of fans reach out to me on social media platforms. I still have fans from the Cairns Taipans that keep up with me. It is just an amazing feeling to have and it’s a blessing to be supported by so many people.”

Time in Australia allowed Craig to absorb new cultures and traditions, but the most pressing transitions occurred on the court. In a tangible sense, Craig grew his talents as a basketballer. He is already one of the best defensive players in the NBA. While his offensive skills remains an improvement area, they have grown significantly since Craig’s days at the University of South Carolina Upstate - as have Craig’s leadership skills.

“My last season with the Brisbane Bullets I had to be a leader, both on and off the court. Developing good habits. Playing with a lot of energy and playing hard. Getting tough. It’s a physical league so getting roughed up by the guys really helps you out physically. Just learned how to stay ready and stay prepared."

Craig will always look back fondly on his time in Australia. He hopes to return after the current season to see some familiar faces. Like everyone he left behind, he sees a rising basketball league that will continue to improve.

“There are better players coming in every year. Better imports. Australian’s coming back to play for the NBL. The league is continuing to grow business wise. Financial wise. The crowd and the endorsements and sponsorships. Yeah, the NBL is continuing to grow and got better each year I was there and it continues to grow. I still keep up with it and still watch it. Still keep up with my team. The league is doing awesome.”