Maturity key to Green’s rise in Phoenix
PHOENIX — In the first up-close-and-extended observation of Gerald Green, there’s one definitive question just itching to be asked.
And this question doesn’t consider what harmonic convergence was required for the Suns swingman to bounce a couple of feet above his NBA contemporaries.
It isn’t necessarily motivated by what set of developmental circumstances enabled the 27-year-old Green to convert impossibly deep jump shots or muster the cold-blooded numbness to fire one up with the game on the line.
No, the question that typically begs to be unleashed in your initial scrutiny of Green is this:
What took him so long?
Now closing in on nine years since he was a first-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics, Green — who has played for seven teams over parts of seven seasons — finally seems to have established himself as a bonafide NBA player.
Through 41 games with the Suns, Green has averaged 13.7 points per game while knocking in 37 percent of his frequent-and-encouraged attempts from behind the 3-point arc.
But while the game seems easy for the 6-foot-8 acrobat, his journey to this point included a few sideways trajectories.
Green, who literally and figuratively jumped from high school into the draft’s first round in 2005, does have an easy explanation for the differences between what he is now and what he was then.
"I take this as a job now instead of taking this basketball thing as a hobby," Green said.
The seeming entitlements attached to being an AAU star and high school standout can stall a kid’s transition to reality. Even though this comfort level quickly can disappear after touching down on the NBA landscape, others have made this adjustment with a lot more finesse.
"It was difficult as far as me being by myself for the first time," Green said. "It was me having so much time on my hands to kind of do whatever.
"It was kind of like going from having no responsibilities to having all the responsibilities in the world."
The responsibility of developing as a basketball player, of being a kid in a world of adults, of meeting the considerable challenges posed by players with similar abilities, didn’t click for quite a while.
"The talent level is just crazy," Green said in a moment that — considering what he physically brings to the basketball table — demands an appreciation for what we see in this league on a nightly basis. "You can’t go from high school to the pros like that without going through a difficult point in your career."
After performing in unremarkable fashion during his first spin through the NBA, Green and his remarkable talents went through several difficult reality-check points. More is required to sustain an NBA career than blowing out a candle on a rim-perched cupcake during a slam-dunk contest.
Through two solid years playing professionally in Russia, his quest to return to basketball’s big time was rewarded with zero interest from NBA teams.
"I had a lot of doubts," Green said. "I always asked myself the question âwas I good enough? Would I ever get a second chance?’ I read a lot of stories about players not being able to get second chances to get back into the league. I kind of told myself if I could go through this overseas, I can go through anything."
But first, he’d have to go through more soul searching in China, where — during the last NBA lockout — Green lasted for a month before he was cut.
With his career at low ebb, the kid only six years removed from the first round of the NBA Draft needed someone to believe in him.
That someone was Eric Musselman.
Musselman, associate head coach at Arizona State, was coaching the Los Angeles D-fenders of the NBA Development League during the 2011-12 campaign. And he believed coaches and personnel directors had given up on Green too quickly.
For that, here are the first words Green offers when the subject turns to Musselman:
"He’s a blessing."
Oh, he doesn’t stop there.
"He was a huge reason why I’m in this situation," Green said. "When I met Coach Musselman, I had just hit rock bottom. I had just been cut by the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association), and I finally got my last opportunity to play in the D-League and he was my coach."
But rather than dismiss Green for the things he couldn’t do, Musselman’s approach included making additions to what the former first-round pick already did well.
"Instead of doing what a lot of coaches did," Green said, "he just tried to get to know me. He just believed in me. He kind of just let me play, but he taught me. He never let me be comfortable … he always pushed me to get better. There was never a day when he didn’t point out something I could do better.
"In my younger days, I would have thought this guy was just pickin’ on me, but I had been around long enough to understand he saw something in me."
After becoming the MVP of the D-League All-Star game, Green spent the rest of that season with the New Jersey Nets. A strong finish there led to a three-year, $10 million contract with the Indiana Pacers.
After a disappointing season at Indy ("I just didn’t play well"), Green, Miles Plumlee and a first-round draft pick were acquired by the new general manager of the Phoenix Suns.
"I think his mental maturity is the thing that stands out most to me," Ryan McDonough, who was working in the Celtics’ personnel department when Green played in Boston, said. "A lot of it probably is the difference between having a 19-year-old kid that’s anointed as going to be the next great preps-to-pros star, and now a guy who’s a 27-year-old man and has a family.
"I think, in terms of his game, he’s figured out how to become a more complete player.
"He’s a great kid, he works hard, and he has all the physical tools to become an elite offensive player."
As Green’s mental tools become more acute, we eventually may start wondering what’s taking teams so long to slow him down.