Two years ago, Torrey Craig was playing in the New Zealand NBL. Christopher Reive speaks to him after his rookie year in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets.
Running out to a raucous crowd of thousands at Denver's Pepsi Centre, it's a different sensation to that you get from the mediocre applause of a few hundred at Wellington's TSB Bank Arena.
The fluorescent lights in the arena go out, the spotlight goes on and the call booms over the loudspeaker.
'At forward, 6'6" from the University of South Carolina Upstate, number three - Torrey Craig.'
His first start in the NBA is a moment former Wellington Saints wing Torrey Craig will never forget. Playing his rookie season with the Denver Nuggets in their 2017-18 campaign, Craig got the nod to join the starting five against the New Orleans Pelicans on December 16.
It might have seemed unlikely that he'd find himself starting an NBA game two years ago when Craig was dominating the NZNBL with the Saints. And in comparing the sensation of hearing his name called to start a match in the two competitions, Craig simply laughs.
"Yeah it's different, man. It's different," he chuckles, "but at the end of the day it's still basketball."
It's a passing comment, but one that sums up Craig's journey from a starring role in college to eventually getting his shot on the biggest stage in the game – three years after his senior year in college in 2014.
Craig knew he was only an outside chance of being drafted into the NBA and, after his name was not one of the 60 called, he jumped on a plane to Australia to take up a contract in the Australian NBL with the Cairns Taipans. Once he arrived, he got straight to work.
He played for the Taipans from 2014-16, before linking up with the Brisbane Bullets for the 2016-17 season. During that stretch, in ANBL off-seasons, he played for the Wellington Saints, earning the NZNBL Most Valuable Player award in 2015 and claiming a league title in 2016. Throughout that span, he always kept that NBA dream in his mind.
And after the 2016-17 ANBL season, and a brief stint in the Queensland basketball League, Craig's standout performances earned him a spot on Denver's Summer League squad. It was the opportunity he had been waiting for.
"When I got invited to Summer League I just knew if I got the opportunity to showcase my talent then I would do so," Craig says.
He did just that – earning a two-way contract with the Nuggets. Introduced in the 2017-18 NBA season, two-way contracts allow developmental players to spend up to 45 days with the NBA squad, spending the rest of the time in the development league, the G-League.
"Once I had a contract it was the same thought process – if I got the opportunity to showcase what I can do I'd try to make the most of it. I was fortunate enough to be in the rotation and come up and play some big games."
Two years after guarding NZNBL stalwarts Lindsay Tait and Phill Jones, Craig was matched up against NBA superstars including James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Not many people can claim they've taken two wins over the Golden State Warriors in the past few years – but Craig is one of them.
"You always dream of playing teams of that calibre."
In guarding the Durant's of the world, Craig found out quickly the big difference between the NBA and the ANBL.
"The NBA is the NBA. It's the best talent in the world. Guys in the NBA are unreal – once in a lifetime type of talents. But I was impressed with how competitive and how talented the NBL was in Australia.
"I believe the mindset of the guys in the NBL is the same as the guys in the NBA, and I believe the NBL is a more physical league than the NBA.
"The NBA try to protect guys with touch fouls and things of that calibre, whereas the NBL is a lot more physical and guys get away with a lot more stuff there.
Craig is a tough, physical defender, so bodying up on an opponent often saw him end up in foul trouble through his first few appearances in the league. He says it took a bit of getting used to, but once he made the adjustment he was able to do what he does best – lock down his man.
This led to arguably the play at the top of his highlights in his rookie year – blocking the shot of New Orleans guard Jrue Holiday as time expired to send their regular season game into overtime. The Nuggets went on to win the game 117-111.
By the end of the season, Craig had worked his way into the Nuggets rotation, and featured in their final game of the season in which a win would have sent them into the playoffs.
The Denver side went down in overtime, and with that, Craig's rookie campaign came to a close.
"Games like that, do or die, it really is win or go home. Our whole season was riding on that game. You could tell both teams really wanted it and it was just exciting to be a part of a game of that magnitude at that time of the year."
It won't be his last taste of the league. With his two-way contract ending when the season finished, Craig is currently a free against. However, he tells the Herald Denver have offered him a full-time NBA contract, which he is in the process of negotiating, and a few other teams around the league have reached out to his agent.
"I believe in the next month or so I'll make a decision on where I'll be playing the following season," he says.
"I was glad to have my first year in the books, but for now I'm just trying to work, get better and come back a better player."