Draymond Green provides a language problem. When you think of the transcendent basketball players of our time, well, you knew exactly what made them so amazing. LeBron James? Come on: He’s huge and absurdly athletic, and he has great vision. How could he miss? Kobe Bryant could fly, could beat anyone off the dribble, and he was relentless. Tim Duncan’s combination of size, agility, and precision triggered an unmistakable image of the Big Fundamental superstar he would become.
But Draymond Green? No. When he came out of Michigan State, he was one of the most decorated and celebrated college basketball players in the country. NBA scouts yawned. They asked Spartans coach Tom Izzo again and again why in the world they should draft Green. How would he overcome his size? His athletic liabilities?
Let’s go to the Draymond Green scouting reports:
“Lacks explosiveness, agility, elusiveness and quickness off the bounce,” NBADraft.net concluded.
“Low ceiling,” NBA Draft Express determined because Green displayed uninspiring athleticism at the draft combine, finishing 48th out of 55 players in standing vertical jump and in the the bottom half in sprint speed.
“The consensus is that Green won’t be able to guard either forward position because true small forwards will be quicker and true power forwards taller and able to post him up and shoot over him,” NBA.com wrote.
“Tweener,” they all determined.
See, that’s a powerful word. You hear that word, “tweener,” and clear images emerge of someone who might try very hard, might care a great deal and might even be very skilled. But none of it matters. He’s a tweener. He’s not quite big enough, fast enough, strong enough, talented enough to play on the big stage.
“He IS a tweener,” Izzo conceded to those NBA scouts. But then he looked for the words to explain that he’d never coached a player quite like Draymond Green. He had this rare — no, unique — combination of toughness and basketball intelligence. But those words and others he came up with — versatile, intense, studious, tireless — do not cancel out “tweener.” See, Draymond Green provides a language problem.
“I get all of your concerns about him,” Izzo said. “But there’s one thing that Draymond Green is very good at.”
The scouts looked at him curiously as he said the word he hoped would help them see what he did.
“Winning,” Izzo said.
* * *
Everyone knows that Stephen Curry is currently the best basketball player on planet earth. Well, OK, there will be those who still cling to LeBron James and contrarians who will argue for Russell Westbrook or Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant or Chris Paul or James Harden.
But the overwhelming majority will choose Curry because, well, we don’t need to recap Curry’s greatness. He leads the NBA in scoring; he has reimagined what a shooter can do; he controls games with his skill and his joy. He was the MVP last year and he has gotten so much better that there is a minor movement to name him MVP and the Most Improved Player this year.
And yet, there’s a crazy but fascinating argument that Izzo makes: “Steph Curry is definitely the league MVP. But Draymond might be that team’s MVP.”
“I can see that,” Curry himself says as he smiles. “Draymond is, um, he’s huge for us.”
See that “Um” in there? That “um” is in every description of Green these days. It’s the language problem that has followed Green all his life. How do you find words for someone who does so many things that don’t have words? You can go all the way back to high school when as a senior he led Saginaw to its second state championship.
Here was the key line in the Detroit News game story:
“In his final game, he wasn’t even Saginaw’s best player, but as usual he was its most important player.”
Think about that for a moment. He wasn’t Saginaw’s BEST player. But he was Saginaw’s most IMPORTANT player. How can you be the best without being the most important? How can you be the most important without being the best? Already, Green inspired conflicts between similar words.
Already, people did not know exactly how to describe him or value him. The Michigan coaches did not vote him the state’s Mr. Basketball. Instead, they gave the award to a high-scoring shooting whiz named Brad Redford, who averaged 37 points per game and made a high school-record 102 consecutive free throws. Those achievements are a lot easier to sum up.
“I am not about individual awards,” Green said about that.
“People say things like that all the time,” Izzo says. “Everybody wants to believe that they do whatever it takes to win. But I’m telling you that in my coaching career, I’ve found that to be a rare, rare trait. Everybody worries about positions. Centers want to be centers, forwards want to be power forwards, guards want to be shooting guards, shooting guards want to be the coach.
“But Draymond — he doesn’t care one bit. He’ll play whatever position. Call him whatever you want. It’s just about winning.”
These days, it should be noted, Green has his own share of gaudy statistics. He’s averaging 15 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, one-plus blocks, one-plus steals and he’s shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range. The only people to ever put up that particular number brew are … well, nobody actually. LeBron James came close a couple of times. Some of the great older players like Oscar Robertson and Jerry West didn’t have a 3-point line.
The thing is nobody around Green thinks those numbers come close to explaining the meaning of Draymond Green.
“He’s so much better than I thought,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr has said, and that’s the point, that’s the thing that everyone who watches Green play day in and day out realizes.
“Sure, people have always underestimated me,” Green says. “But my teammates have not.”
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Let’s go back to Izzo’s team MVP concept for a moment. In 2012-13, when Green was an overwhelmed rookie shooting 33 percent from the field in limited minutes, the Warriors were a good team. Curry had emerged as a star. Klay Thompson made a bunch of three-pointers. David Lee was a force around the basket. The Warriors won 47 games and a playoff series. They were good, but certainly not an NBA championship threat.
In 2013-14, when Green developed into a solid-but-unspectacular bench player, the Warriors were a slightly better team. Steph Curry played about the same, Klay Thompson played about the same, David Lee fell off a bit, but the Warriors won 51 games. They lost in the first round of the playoffs. They were good but certainly not an NBA championship threat.
And then in 2014-15, Green blossomed into a different kind of player. His defense was something of a miracle, he guarded every position on the floor and finished second in voting for NBA Defensive Player of the Year (receiving more first-place votes than anybody). He developed as a passer, as a rebounder, and as a scorer. Yes, Curry kept improving and became league MVP. Yes, Thompson took a step forward. Yes, Harrison Barnes and others became key factors. But really, how do you explain the Warriors going from good but not great to NBA champions? You explain it by saying the words: Draymond Green.
This year, Green has gotten even better. And the Warriors are all but unbeatable.
“You just can’t see it at first,” Izzo says. “You need to see him every day.”
Izzo remembers when Green showed up at Michigan State as a 277-pound freshman. He was a bench player that first year for all the obvious reasons, but Izzo gradually realized as the season progressed that he wanted Green in the game at the end — when it mattered. And then Izzo realized that he HAD to have Green in the game at the end when it mattered.
And then Izzo saw other things. Green would come in to talk about how to make other players better. He would ask a million questions about why they were doing things. He would make gameplan suggestions, even talking about how the team should work their ball screens. “Oh, man, he would question EVERYTHING,” Izzo says. “In huddles, he would go crazy on things.”
“But,” Izzo adds, “after a while you saw where it was coming from. He studied as much film as the coaches. He worked so hard. You saw how much he wanted to win, how much he was willing to give up to win. … I still have mixed feelings about how much he talks, the technical fouls, all that stuff, but you know, you listen to him, he’s right a lot.”
The Warriors now have seen that passion. They’ve seen it off the court, where his passion and fury are on display every single day and every single practice (“He’ll wear you out,” Izzo says). More, though, they’ve seen it on the court, where Green’s relentlessness reigns. Remember that scouting report that said most people thought Green couldn’t guard small or big forwards? Now, because he refuses to back off even a little, Green guards EVERYBODY, from 7-foot-4 centers to point guards.
Remember that scouting report that said he had a low ceiling? Now, Green redefines his position. He brings the ball up the floor and he bangs underneath. He leads the league in triple-doubles with eight and is the only so-called power forward to have even one of those. He’s so good at setting on-the-ball screens that Izzo had his video people capture every screen for educational purposes.
“He’s the best ball-screener in the NBA,” Izzo says proudly. “And who else works that hard on becoming a great screener?”
* * *
Green will tell you: He didn’t become this player out of spite or because he felt disrespected. He really cannot stand that theme, the one other athletes harp on all the time “This was always the plan,” he says. “What people said about me, that had nothing to do with it.”
Then he smiles a little bit.
“Well, maybe it gets me a little fired up. I mean, I am a pretty fiery player.”
On the day of the NBA draft, Green was passed up 34 times. The Cleveland Cavaliers, a team owned by Michigan State graduate and Izzo friend Dan Gilbert, passed on Green FOUR times. The four players they drafted instead:
— Dion Waiters
— Jared Cunningham
— Bernard James
— Jae Crowder
So, yeah, that didn’t work out. Of course, the Cavaliers were not the only team to pass on Green. Just about EVERY team passed on Green, including the Golden State Warriors the first time around, and he was so outraged that he walked out of his own draft party.
But, again, he wants to make it clear: This “underappreciated player proves everyone wrong” story is not his story. He’s just following the path he always planned to follow. He always worked harder. He always cared more. He always won. When he was in high school, he led winning teams. When he was in college, he led winning teams. Now in the NBA, he leads a winning team.
“I don’t really expect people to understand,” Green says. “This is just me.” It comes back to Izzo’s line about winning. Basketball coaches seek all these traits, these words — height, speed, quickness, agility, intensity and so on — and those are important words. But they are only that: Words.
“Isn’t it funny that we just forget that this is all about winning,” Izzo says. “I don’t blame anyone; I sometimes forget that myself in recruiting. We get caught up in all sorts of other things, but it’s about winning. That’s what I tried to tell those teams. Draymond’s toughness and his basketball IQ, you put those two things together, he’s unique. Especially his toughness. If you ask me who I’d want to go to war with, I’d say Draymond Green.”
Two weeks ago, in Detroit, the Warriors played on the night that the Pistons retired the number of Ben Wallace. That meant a lot to Green. He grew up a Pistons fan, and when he was in high school and college, he idolized Wallace because, let’s face it, the guy just played to win. He didn’t score much. He couldn’t shoot at all — his 41 percent career free throw percentage is one of the all-time lows. But he rebounded and blocked shots and played fierce defense and led the Pistons to an NBA title through sheer will.
“He showed me what a basketball player could be,” Green said, and he grew emotional.
As it turned out, the Warriors played perhaps their worst game of the season that night. They didn’t match the Pistons’ energy. They played sluggish defense. Green was off, missing shots around the basket, getting beat off the glass. He promised it wouldn’t happen again.
Two nights later, the Warriors blew out the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers so emphatically that it led to the firing of Cleveland coach David Blatt. Green was everywhere — scoring 15, dishing out ten assists, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking two shots in only three quarters.
“Do you believe that games like this send messages?” reporters asked each of the Warriors. All but one downplayed the lopsided victory. All but one.
“Yes,” Green said. “Absolutely. Message sent.”