Jae Crowder reaps the benefits of hard work

Few players have seen their NBA careers trend upward as much as Jae Crowder.

A former standout at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Crowder was chosen in the second round of the 2012 NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers before being dealt to Dallas. He spent two-plus seasons with the Mavs, starting 24 games, before he was traded to Boston, where he blossomed into a full-time starter during the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

But the Celtics sent Crowder to Cleveland over the summer in a blockbuster trade that involved All-Star guards Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas. Crowder has become the Cavs’ starting small forward and been a key contributor in helping the Cavaliers post the second-best record in the Eastern Conference – despite the absence of the injured Thomas.

After the Cavs’ game against the Bucks in Milwaukee on Tuesday night, Crowder chatted about his amazing “journey.’’:

If someone had told you a couple of years ago that you would be in the starting lineup for a team that had gone to three straight NBA Finals, what would you have said?

Jae Crowder: “I wouldn’t have believed you. Not at all. This ordeal of me being here is unbelievable. I knew I was probably leaving Boston, but I didn’t know I was coming to Cleveland. I never expected this to happen.’’

You were a second-round pick in the draft and more often than not second-rounders have a tough time making a roster, much less ever becoming a starter. Did you ever doubt yourself and wonder if you would ever become a starting caliber player?

JC: “I just wanted the opportunity. Dallas gave that opportunity to go out there and show my talent and then they traded me to a team, Boston, which could really use me. I just tried to take advantage of my opportunities along the way. I knew I could play in this league. I knew the amount of work I put in would pay off at some time, so I stayed the course of working hard and believing in myself.’’

A lot of basketball observers claim your best asset as a player is your penchant to consistently play hard. Where did you develop that mentality to lay it on the line all the time?

JC: “I had it since I was young, growing up in a tough environment. And then when I got to college, especially at Marquette, I really learned how to work and not waste my time in the gym. From that point on, I ran with it. It’s been installed in me to prepare like a champion.’’

While Dallas gave you an opportunity to showcase your skills, you were only a part-time starter there and had stints with their D-League team. What did you feel you had to do next to take your game to another level and become a starter?

JC: “Stay in the gym. … Stay in the gym. I felt that when my opportunity came to help my team win ballgames, I’d be able to do that.’’

What was your reaction when you learned you had been traded from Boston to Cleveland?

JC: “I had mixed feelings. But I was eager to get it going with a group of guys who had been to the Finals, who knew what it takes to win. I was eager to get that whole process of us jelling together, becoming a unit, becoming a team and fight for one goal.’’

Were you shocked by the trade?

JC: “Hell, yeah. Yep. Very much so. I didn’t know I was going to Cleveland.’’

Were you under the impression you were going to be a Celtic for a while?

JC: “No, no. I wanted out of the Boston situation because of the draft choices they had and the free agent signing that they had. So, I wanted out of that situation. It was just a matter time, of when and where I would go.’’

What do you see as the biggest difference between the Celtics and Cavaliers?

JC: “This (Cleveland) is a veteran group who know how to work and know how to win. Instead of us working to get there, these guys have already proven themselves as winners. You feel that the first day you’re here with this team. And, in Boston, I was one of the oldest guys. Here, I’m one of the younger guys. So this is a good situation for me.’’

You went to Marquette and your teammate Dwyane Wade went to Marquette. Do you exchange MU stories?

JC: “All the time. We went to the (Marquette against Northern Illinois) game Monday night. We always talk about what it was like when we played in the Bradley Center.’’

Speaking of Marquette, you played with several players who are also now in the NBA, including Jimmy Butler who is a star for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Jamil Wilson, who recently cracked the starting lineup for the Los Angeles Clippers. Did you think all of you would become NBA players and even starters?

JC: “I couldn’t say I did. I’d be lying to you if I said I did. I knew we had a chance because of how hard we worked and how we took our situations seriously. But, no, I never saw that happening.’’

You had a chance in past years to watch LeBron James as an opponent. Now that you’re his teammate, is there anything you didn’t know about him before?

JC: “His work ethic. His work ethic is unbelievable. Bar none. He’s one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever been around. He works non-stop. And it rubs off on everybody else.’’

The Cavaliers have been to the NBA Finals three consecutive years and won the title two years ago. Is the mind-set with this team Finals or bust?

JC: “That’s it. It’s all about a championship.’’