'Baby Bull' Crawford a veteran now

CHICAGO -- Jamal Crawford was sitting in the visitors locker room before the game, resting his shooting hand and chatting with a few reporters when his teammate Grant Hill walked by on his way to the court.

“Back to where it all started,” Hill said with a smile.

It’s been a long time and a lot of shots since Crawford was a Chicago Bull. His last season here was 2003-04. Since then he’s made many return trips during his time as a Knick, Warrior, Hawk, Trail Blazer and now as a Clipper.

Not many guys on the Clippers probably remember Crawford’s time as a young gunning guard with the Baby Bulls. He said only graybeards Hill and Chauncey Billups brought it up for this trip.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys on this team,” said Crawford, now an elderly 32 in his 13th NBA season.

After playing the Bulls in the playoffs for the Atlanta Hawks in 2011, Crawford nearly became a Bull again after the lockout last December as the team searched for a shooting guard. They wound up with Rip Hamilton.

”I talked to Coach (Tom) Thibodeau and we had some great conversations,” he said. “I was actually trying to be patient. I didn’t want to sign a one-year contract. I figured it was my last long-term contract so I wanted security. It wasn’t an actual number, I just wanted the years. At that time, they could only provide a short-term contract. It’s ironic because, waiting so long, that’s what I ended up signing in Portland anyway.”

After a year with the Trail Blazers, Crawford got his four-year, $25 million deal with the Clippers this summer and it’s paid off for the Western Conference contender. Through 20 games, Crawford was averaging 17.9 points and shooting 44.2 percent (38.7 percent) playing nearly 30 minutes as a reserve.

The Bulls could certainly use Crawford this year, especially his ability to create his own shot.

“He’s something,” Thibodeau said. “He’s done it for a long time. It doesn’t take much for him to get going. You can’t give him any room. He takes and makes tough shots and he’s not afraid of taking big shots. ”

While Thibodeau wanted Crawford -- who said he only likes defense -- you can credit Clippers coach, and fellow Bulls refugee, Vinny Del Negro for helping recruit Crawford.

“Vinny’s been great,” Crawford said. “I’ve been having more fun with him than I’ve had in my whole NBA career.”

Winning is fun, sure, but Crawford said the often-criticized Del Negro has been a big part of the process.

“I think the trust he gives me, the trust he gives our team,” he said. “I think he understands the pulse of our team. He knows how to talk to guys. He knows how to get messages across. I think you can see a direct connect to why we’ve had success.”

That’s true. It’s December and no one’s talking firing Del Negro, which is new. The former Bulls coach owes a lot to the play of his bench, led by Crawford.

“He’s a guy you can throw the ball to and he can make a play,” Del Negro said. “He’s a scorer, he’s a threat on the court all the time. He opens up the game for everybody, whether it’s Blake (Griffin) or Chris (Paul) or whoever. He’s always been able to score the ball but I’ve been pleased more he’s given me good effort on the defensive end. He’s buying in.”

He’s even passing.

“He led the team in assists a few games ago,” Del Negro said. “So he told us he’s diversifying his portfolio.”