Just a freshman with less than 30 games under his belt, E.J. Crawford may already be Iona’s most versatile player.
The 6-foot-6 native of Hartford, Connecticut is the latest in a long line of offensive threats coach Tim Cluess and his staff have lured to New Rochelle. With offers from league-leaders UNC-Wilmington and Vermont on the table, Crawford instead chose the Gaels, who in recent years have established themselves as a blue-ribbon program in the MAAC.
What makes Crawford stand out from past recruits like A.J. English, Schadrac Casimir and Rickey McGill is his size. At 210 pounds, the young wing fills a key cog in the Iona offense left barren by last year’s graduation of versatile swingman Isaiah Williams.
Williams, who joined Iona for his sophomore season in 2013-14, averaged double-figures in each of his three seasons in New Rochelle and notched 1,044 points over that time. The Gaels appeared in the MAAC Championship game each those three years, capturing the title in 2016. In their 2015 semifinal win over Monmouth, Williams set a single-game tournament record with nine made 3-pointers.
“We needed someone who could take over Isaiah Williams’ spot,” Cluess said of Crawford’s recruitment. “We were looking for someone with enough size that could help rebound at that spot and can also make some shots from there.”
Despite his young age, Crawford is already physically a match for Williams, who checked in at 6-foot-7, 190 pounds during his senior campaign. Although expected to fill a similar role, the two also possess different skill sets.
“Isaiah, throughout his career, was more of a catch and shoot guy and an energy guy on defense,” Cluess added. “I think E.J. can balance the ball, get to the hole, and do a few other things a little better. He’s not as athletic as Isaiah was, or playing with that same defensive motor, but we hope that will develop as he gets used to the college game.”
For Crawford, the biggest adjustment to the Division I level has simply been the speed at which the Gaels play. Ranked among the top 50 teams in the nation in tempo for each of Cluess’ first six seasons, Iona’s fast-paced system demands that players be in top condition.
“The biggest challenge has probably been the physicality and just being in shape,” Crawford said. “When I came here at first, I wasn’t in shape, so I couldn’t keep up. The culture here is it’s a fast program, and if you’re not in shape you can’t play here.”
As Crawford has adjusted to the Division I level, his time on the court has steadily increased. The freshman averages 25.2 minutes per game, which eclipses even English’s rookie rate of 21.8 mpg. Crawford has also found himself a regular in the starting lineup. He has started 24 of the Gaels’ 27 games thus far, averaging just a hair under 10 points per contest and has dropped double-figures on 16 occasions with a career-high 20 coming against Quinnipiac on January 23.
Though Crawford has developed a knack for putting the ball through the hoop, his presence on the boards has yet to live up to Williams’ standard. While Williams averaged 4.0, 6.1, and 6.9 rebounds per game in each of his three seasons, Crawford has notched just 3.2 rpg in his rookie year.
In terms of shooting, Crawford is already off to a great start. While Williams was a 50% shooter for each of his first two seasons, his average dipped to 43.3% in his senior campaign. Crawford is currently shooting 45.1% from the field, and his 44.7% mark from three-point range tops any of Williams’ campaigns.
Crawford’s first signature moment came late in the Gaels’ 79-75 win over Ohio on December 10. With the score knotted at 75 entering the final ninety seconds, Crawford accounted for the game’s final four points, including a critical three-point play to put the game out of reach in the waning seconds.
With the Gaels up by one, McGill came up with a steal inside the final thirty seconds. Before Ohio could make the necessary foul, the ball was passed on to graduate guard Sam Cassell Jr., who heaved it upcourt toward Crawford, standing alone beneath the Bobcats’ basket. The freshman converted the layup, and along with the added point on the foul gave the Gaels enough breathing room to come away with the win.
“He’s really clutch,” Cluess said of Crawford. “He doesn’t get fazed by the moment in the game. He’s a very confident young man.”
Entering the home stretch of regular season, Iona is still in play for the second seed in the MAAC tournament, which carries with it an extra day of rest between the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds. If the Gaels are to make another March run, the continued development of Crawford on the wing will be a big reason why.
“He’s only a freshman, but he’s understanding a lot more today than what he did two or three months ago, as far as what it takes to be good and what it takes to compete,” Cluess said after a recent win over St. Peter’s. “I like the steps he’s starting to take, but he has a lot of big steps that he needs to take ahead of him.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.