Draymond Green had just finished his stellar career at Michigan State the last time he shared a court with his aunt. Annette Babers, a former basketball star for MSU’s women’s team, was one of Green’s first mentors in the sport. She had told Green he could win every game — except when he played against her. She loved talking trash and beating the boys, and she continued playing all-out against Green, even as he prepared for the 2012 NBA draft. In pickup games, Babers would intentionally play on the opposite team from her nephew. When he was younger, she bullied and bodied him on the court. As Green got older, he measured his accomplishments against what his aunt had achieved. When Green won his first Michigan high school championship, Babers told him she had done the same thing, only her team had been undefeated. When Green talked of playing at Michigan State, she reminded him that she had been an all-conference player there — while she was pregnant.
Now, as a starter on the NBA-leading Golden State Warriors, Green isn’t shy about taunting his aunt with the ultimate basketball trump card. He’ll call Babers at any time to ask: “You have the TV set on? You ain’t about that life right there, right?”
That life — being a celebrated member of the winningest team in franchise history and an irreplaceable cog in the Warriors’ top-ranked defense — has already led to more career success than most NBA observers expected from a second-round pick like Green. “He’s closer to 6-5 than he is 6-6,” said Warriors associate head coach Alvin Gentry. “We can write down what we want.”1 Yet Green is resourceful and mobile enough to guard any position on the court, and in his third year in the NBA, he is playing himself into position to sign a max contract after the season, when he becomes a restricted free agent.
The Warriors’ roster lists Green as 6-foot-7.
Green’s rise stems in large part from his confidence. He believed in himself three years ago, when conventional wisdom viewed him as an undersize power forward who might not make it in the league. And he believes in himself just as much now, when he’s viewed as a leading candidate for defensive player of the year. Green has never been shy about flashing that self-assurance. As a rookie, he bickered with Kevin Garnett. He posted a picture of himself on Twitter in Spartans football gear when George Karl, then the Nuggets coach, argued that Green’s play resembled football more than basketball. Most recently, Green ended a back-and-forth with Doc Rivers by dismissing the Clippers coach with the line, “Cool story, Glenn.”
Verbal sparring runs in Green’s family, and his bravado is welcome on a team full of quiet, confident types like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Andre Iguodala.
“He talks shit to everybody,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
“He’s talking to us, himself, the coach, the other bench,” Thompson said.
“If you’re having a conversation about potato chips, then he’s going to make sure his opinion [is] heard,” Iguodala added.
That attitude has made him a Golden State crowd favorite and injected the Warriors with a badly needed strain of toughness. At home games, when Green is introduced with the starting lineup, the applause for him rivals the cheers for MVP front-runner Curry.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m arrogant,” Green said. “I’m just confident. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m an asshole. I just don’t take no shit. And I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m disrespectful. You’ve just got to earn my respect.”
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
Green was pudgy and headstrong as a child: “I was bad, like real bad.” He would play pickup games against the older kids and adults in the neighborhood and insist to stay on the court no matter what. “Sometimes I get to talking junk back and forth in these [NBA] games, and it’s so watered down compared to the trash talk I grew up hearing,” Green said. His uncle Bennie Babers mentored and coached Green in basketball and talking junk from an early age. “Pretty much anything goes in trash talking, until you start cursing and disrespecting,” Babers explained. “Once you start dissing the person, you’re turning trash talking into an offensive thing where the person wants to fight. … The key is not to get offended if someone outtalks you. One thing you’re trying to do is get them rattled and keep them rattled and use that to your advantage. If you get upset, then you’re going to lose, because you’re going to feed into what he wants you to do.”
Of course, it helped that Green’s game backed up his talk. When Green arrived at Saginaw High, coach Lou Dawkins relegated him to the freshman team even though Green was already better than most of the varsity players. Dawkins had known Green’s family for years, and he wanted to teach Green a lesson in humility. “He had to understand that there was a Draymond Green in Florida,” Dawkins said. “There’s a Draymond Green in Georgia, not just Saginaw or in the state of Michigan. He had to understand that to be the very best, you have to be humble.”
Around that age, Green encountered another life-altering lesson after he got caught cheating on a ninth-grade biology exam. When his mother found out, she knew it would take drastic measures to change her son’s behavior. “I gave away everything in his room that he could play with or touch,” Mary Babers-Green said. “I gave it all away.”
She made Green walk to summer school and find a job that he would also have to get to on foot. The most devastating aspect of her punishment was forbidding Green from playing basketball that summer. He had planned on attending a tournament in Las Vegas and basketball camp at Michigan State, where he eventually hoped to play college ball. The penalty was so harsh that family friends urged Babers-Green to reconsider. At first, she stuck to her guns. “Everybody turned against me,” she said. “But I had to stick to it. Even the high school athletic director came to my house and told me I was wrong for taking basketball from him. My thing was — who wants a dumb athlete? Nobody. Everyone talked about how he’ll be a star. But as soon as he fails, everybody will look at me. Nobody is going to say his coach let him fail. It was me.”
After Green showed enough commitment to his summer school studies, his mother relented and let him play in the Vegas tournament, but Babers-Green’s tough love routine had been enough to spark a change in her son. “His behavior was different,” said Mike Servinski, the science teacher who had caught Green cheating. “You could see that he was becoming a young man that was trying to refocus himself and make sure education was important.” Green kept his GPA above 3.0 for the rest of his high school career. But even though he matured, Green never lost his gift of gab or that knack for ribbing friends, family, opponents, and strangers alike. His charisma, plus a sense of how far he could push people without crossing the line, allowed Green to get away with running his mouth. “He always could skate through because everybody loved him,” Babers-Green said. “When they say, ‘Everybody loves Draymond,’ it didn’t just start now. No matter what he did, it never stuck.”
Green’s career took off. He won two state titles at Saginaw and led the team with the same kind of all-around game that would become his trademark at Michigan State and in the NBA. But in the buttoned-up world of high school basketball, Green’s charm couldn’t always keep him out of trouble once he started to yap. One referee tossed him from a Christmas tournament after multiple warnings to keep quiet. Even though Green said he had been yelling only to rally his teammates, rumors spread that Green might have attitude problems.
That reputation may have played into why Michigan State took longer than Green expected to show serious interest in recruiting him. “I couldn’t answer the question [why Michigan State was slow to recruit Green], because I really didn’t know,” Dawkins said. “You’ve got a top-50 player in your own state that’s 60 miles from your campus and you did not offer this kid.”
Green initially committed to Kentucky under then-coach Tubby Smith, but when Smith accepted a position at Minnesota before Green’s senior season, it freed Green to consider other schools. At that point, Michigan State finally came around and began to show interest in Green. But Spartans coach Tom Izzo still had to convince Babers-Green, who was upset that college coaches had been bypassing her to talk directly to her son. During their final meeting, Babers-Green did not ask Izzo to promise her son playing time at Michigan State. She asked him to help turn him into a man. Izzo agreed.
“It was a loss, but it wasn’t like we lost a McDonald’s guy,” Izzo said of how he felt when Green first committed to Kentucky. “But boy, if I knew what I know now, it would have been the biggest loss of my life.”
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Travis Walton was a Michigan State senior when Green, a portly freshman forward, arrived on campus. He remembered Green’s first team weightlifting session. Green had injured his ankle the previous summer and weighed in at nearly 300 pounds to start his college career. Inside the weight room, Green started to warm up on the bench press and then proceeded to vomit from overexertion. “I actually think I warmed up with 125 because 135 was too hard,” Green recalled.
Wow, how did this guy get here? Walton wondered.
“He won two state championships,” Walton recalled, “so we knew he had talent.” But it must have been hidden somewhere — deep beneath that baby fat. Walton had initially expected Green to be one of those high school stars whose game would flame out in the Big Ten, but once he saw the freshman dominate a scrimmage, Walton began to believe. “He basically took over the open gym and made a lot of plays,” Walton said. “He always talked trash. That was always Draymond.”
Green still had a long way to go, however, before he’d be ready to play high-level college basketball. He had never paid much attention to conditioning or his diet. Michigan State’s coaching staff thought Green needed to work harder and take better care of his body. Assistant coach Dwayne Stephens quickly tired of Green’s loafing and put a scare into the freshman by instructing a student manager to retrieve a red jersey for Green.
“What’s this for?” Green asked.
“Because you’re going to redshirt if you keep playing the way you’re playing,” Stephens told him.
“He didn’t take that kindly,” Stephens recalled. “He was pissed off, but he got the message and picked it up.”
For Green, hearing people tell him he can’t do something is an opportunity to prove them wrong. “I had already heard a million times: ‘You’re going to redshirt at Michigan State. You ain’t good enough. You’ll never play there.’” Green said. “So it was one of those things where I felt like if I redshirt I fail.”
The relationship between Izzo and Green took time to develop. Early in his career, Green wanted playing time and a major role on the team, while the coach preferred to bring him along slowly. Izzo asked Babers-Green how best to reach her son. “He appears tough, but if you can get in his head, he’ll do anything for you,” she told Izzo. “He’ll move mountains for you, because he’s not going to quit. He don’t have the word quit in him.”
Green fought for his minutes — anytime he got on the court, he had to earn it. Izzo and Green earned each other’s respect. At the beginning, when Green’s trash talk would start to heat up, Izzo would tell him to cut it out. “As a freshman, he wasn’t buying it,” Green said. “Like, ‘Shut up, you’re a freshman.’”
“He used to miss his shot and kick the ball around the arena,” Izzo recalled. “That ticked me off at times. But then again, after practice I’d say, ‘I wish some other guys care enough to get that upset.’”
Before long, the coach and player came to understand each other. “We started off, and we used to clash heads every day,” Green said. “And as my time at State went on, once [I] really get to know him, it was like, Man, this dude will do whatever he possibly can to help [me] out. I realized that this man wants me to be successful probably more or just as much as I want to be successful. You don’t find that every day. But he wants me to succeed this bad. How can I not love him?”
The feelings were mutual. “There’s a little bit of a gruff exterior,” Izzo said. “But if you ever need him — I swear the guy would run back here if I needed him. And I would do the same for him.”
Green averaged 3.3 points and 3.3 rebounds in limited minutes as a freshman. By the end of the season, though, his game had developed and he was able to play a larger role during Michigan State’s run to the national championship game in 2009. He averaged 8.5 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting a team-high 67.9 percent in that year’s NCAA tournament.
“It seemed like every game, in winning time, I played him more and more,” Izzo said. “It culminated with our run to the Final Four, when we played Kansas and Louisville and he was one of the key guys. That’s when I learned, more than his skills, it’s his ability to make winning plays that separates him.”
By the time Green finished his senior year at Michigan State, he had led his team to another Final Four and grown into the kind of player who could affect the game in multiple ways — with passing, post play, quick hands on defense, and leadership, among other things. Some of Green’s most memorable moments weren’t clutch baskets, but the many times when he just managed to be in the right place at the right time to make critical, momentum-altering plays.
The 2012 NBA draft was an anxious occasion for Green and his family. His senior year at Michigan State, Green had been a first-team All-American along with future top-five picks Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson, but Green wasn’t considered a lottery prospect. Green remained slightly overweight throughout his college career, and he had played power forward for the Spartans. His height was measured at less than 6-6 at the NBA combine. Drafting him would require some team to make a leap of faith that Green would be able to slim down and use the ball skills, passing, and basketball acumen he’d flashed in college to become an effective perimeter player at the next level. Otherwise, Green’s NBA career might have fallen flat like the careers of countless burly, undersize power forwards who came before him.
ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford saw Green as a late first-round pick and projected he’d go 27th to the Miami Heat. “Although it’s clear that he has limitations, he’s just a basketball player — the type of glue guy who helps good teams win and stays in the league far longer than anyone expects,” Ford wrote. But at times in his college career, Green had also appeared overmatched against other NBA prospects. Gordon Hayward forced Green into an air ball on a crucial possession in the final 30 seconds of MSU’s 2010 Final Four loss to Butler, and Green struggled to finish over North Carolina’s taller, springier front line in the Spartans’ 2011-12 season opener, when John Henson, Tyler Zeller, and Harrison Barnes forced Green into 6-of-19 shooting. Heading into the draft, it wasn’t hard to understand why some general managers might have felt wary selecting a player who, in Ford’s words, “does not have the prototypical height of a power forward,” “doesn’t have the standard quickness of most small forwards,” and “doesn’t really have a position in the NBA.”2
Current Michigan State junior Denzel Valentine faces some of the same skepticism that Green encountered from NBA draft experts. Despite his toughness and strong all-around playmaking ability, Valentine remains a projected second-rounder who’s undersized for an NBA wing and lacks elite athleticism.
On draft night, the first round came and went. Green’s name had not been called. Off and on that night, Green phoned Joe Dumars, then the general manager of the Detroit Pistons. Green and Dumars’s son had played AAU basketball together and became close friends, and Dumars considered Green to be like family. Dumars told Green to stay calm. “Don’t worry,” Dumars said. “It’s going to work out for you.” The Pistons had the ninth pick of the second round and planned to select Green.
But the Warriors had the fifth pick. Golden State drafted Green 35th overall,3 before Dumars had a chance to make good on his promise. Green was now officially part of an NBA franchise, but the idea that 34 players had been picked ahead of him needled at Green’s pride. At the same time, however, it made perfect sense to him.
In retrospect, the second round of the 2012 draft was an unexpectedly fruitful source for NBA rotation players. Along with Green, Jae Crowder, Mike Scott, Khris Middleton, and Will Barton were all selected between 34th and 44th overall.
“The Warriors had the 30th pick,”4 he said. “They could have picked me. People would have never said, ‘Draymond was the 30th pick.’ They’ll just say he was a first-rounder. But they never go back and say, ‘Well, he was only five picks out of the first round.’ They’ll just say he was a second-rounder, and that fits my story better than me being a first-rounder, because I’ve always had to prove myself. As frustrating as it’s been at times, [the first round] just didn’t fit my story.”
Golden State used it on Festus Ezeli, a defensive-minded center who has filled in when Andrew Bogut has been out with injuries.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
The Warriors have a system of assigning rookies to veteran teammates, who serve as mentors. Mark Jackson, the Warriors coach when Green was drafted, linked the rookie with Jeremy Tyler, who had joined the team a year earlier in 2011. In many ways, Tyler and Green were opposites. Tyler, a 6-10 center, had been a basketball prodigy, ranked near the top of his recruiting class since he was in his early teens. Tyler skipped not only college, but also his senior year of high school to play two unfulfilling seasons overseas. Even though Green was a rookie in 2012-13, he was still older than Tyler.
Before long, Green sought the guidance of more seasoned Warriors players. He and Tyler remain friends, but Green doesn’t regret his decision to forge ties with other players. “Jarrett Jack was my vet. Carl Landry, Jermaine O’Neal,” Green said, mentioning former Warriors who taught him how to establish himself in the league. “[Tyler] didn’t fit that mold. He still had a lot of immaturities about himself that just didn’t scream ‘my vet.’ Maybe he was somebody else’s vet, but couldn’t have been mine.”5
Marcus Thompson originally reported on this topic for the San Jose Mercury News.
It’s one thing for a rookie second-rounder to have thoughts like these. It’s a much different thing for that rookie to openly renounce the mentor his coach chose for him. It was a brash move, but it put the whole Golden State organization on notice that Green wasn’t content just to be in the league. He wanted to rise in the team’s pecking order, break into the rotation, and contribute to the Warriors’ success, starting with those early displays of will and confidence. “I wasn’t going to let him think that he was my vet,” Green said. “No way I’m going to let you think that. Let’s just not even take it there, because it’s just not the case.”
Green’s NBA beginning mirrored his start in the college ranks. He played one minute in Golden State’s 2012-13 opener. Then, after Warriors wing players Brandon Rush and Richard Jefferson sustained early-season injuries, Green inherited some of their minutes. “He was a leader right away,” Jackson said. “I encouraged him to speak his mind and don’t change from what he was his entire life, and he was a guy that was not afraid to say something in the locker room.”
That included Green’s first matchup against Kevin Garnett. Green, like most players of his generation, had grown up admiring Garnett. Now, the future Hall of Famer was just another opponent. “KG just talks junk to try and scare people,” Green said. “He won’t say nothing directly to you. He just says stuff about you out loud, like talking to himself. So I called him out: ‘Bro, you’re not scaring anyone. Just stop with the antics.’ We got into it, but I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
The same way Green had worked his way into the rotation by the end of his freshman season at Michigan State, he became an increasingly important contributor for the Warriors as his rookie season progressed. During the 2013 NBA playoffs, Green was ready to step up. He played crucial minutes in Golden State’s first-round win over Denver and helped the Warriors give San Antonio a scare in the Western Conference semifinals before falling in six games. “He’s a basketball player,” Jackson said. “I think you’re doing a crime by putting a label on him as far as a position is concerned. He can do anything you ask him to do on the floor. That’s his position. Every successful team needs a Draymond Green. You can’t put a price on what he does.”
That summer, the Warriors training staff challenged Green to get in peak condition for the next season. Green responded by dropping about 20 pounds. Green also worked to improve his outside shot after shooting 21 percent from 3-point range as a rookie. “I heard from people, Warriors announcers, killing him, killing me, for allowing him to shoot 3-pointers,”6 Jackson said. “But to me, as long as you put the time in, those are shots that you are licensed to take. He worked his tail off in every aspect of the game, and he’s benefiting from it right now. [Back when he was a rookie], every single day, he would get his shots up.”
Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons was among these voices.
Green ended the 2013-14 season with averages of 6.2 points and 5.0 rebounds, but his NBA education progressed dramatically thanks to veteran big man Jermaine O’Neal, who signed with the Warriors that year and took Green under his wing. When O’Neal joined the team, he was impressed that Green, a second-year player, had already gained the locker room’s respect. When O’Neal saw Green acting dismissively of teammates over small disagreements on and off the court, O’Neal decided to pull Green aside and correct his behavior. “Guys really respect you as a leader, as a person, as a player,” O’Neal said he told him. “But one thing you can’t do is get a ‘fuck it’ attitude. You’ve already got everybody’s respect. Don’t lose it doing stuff like that. Somebody got something to say to you, listen. If you’re pissed off about something, be pissed off. But don’t blow people off.” Green called it some of the best advice he had received.
“Being accountable when things aren’t going the way you expect them to go is one of the most difficult scenarios for young players,” O’Neal added. “That was a hard lesson for him last year, but he talked about it with me, and obviously having Mark Jackson as a head coach helped him tremendously.”
The Warriors drew the Clippers in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. Midway through the series, O’Neal approached Jackson and suggested that Green take his place in the starting lineup. “It was a surreal feeling,” Green said. “This guy I grew up watching — a 17-year vet — goes to the coaches and tells them to start me? Number one, we’re in the playoffs. We’re in a series with the Clippers — [who] I strongly dislike — and you go to the coach and tell him to start me over you? Dang, I got to play my best. I can’t let him down.”
The series took a bizarre off-court turn after Game 3, when TMZ published recordings of racist comments by then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The ensuing controversy overshadowed the rest of the series, which Los Angeles clinched in a back-and-forth Game 7. But although the Warriors’ 51-win season had ended earlier than the team hoped, Green blossomed as a playoff starter. He buried five 3-pointers in a thrilling Game 7 loss and ended with 24 points. “We did a good job on Steph and an adequate job on Klay, but here’s a guy [Green], who we said, ‘We’ll make him beat us,’” said Gentry, who was a Clippers assistant last season. “He came real close to doing that. I would say, in a seventh game of a series, a game-clinching situation, where you step up and play like that — that’s the ultimate in confidence.”
Green, however, remains bitter about the loss. “At no point in that game — until the very end when I realized we weren’t fitting to win — did I think they were going to beat us,” Green said. “At no point. I just felt like we were way better than they were.” Green said the Clippers did little talking during the series. “They talked more after than they did during the game,” he said. “You can tell when someone is uneasy about something, [when they] don’t really believe what they’re trying to show [you] they believe.”
And Green’s animosity toward the Clippers hasn’t dissipated one bit. This season, he’s had notable altercations with Blake Griffin, Dahntay Jones, and Doc Rivers.
“They have a cocky arrogance, like they’ve won something, and they haven’t done nothing,” Green said. “They pretty much been to the same spot in the playoffs we’ve been to. But they have this cockiness like you’re supposed to bow down to them. They ain’t proved nothing. They ain’t earned nothing. What respect have you earned?”
But couldn’t any Clippers player say the same thing about Green?
“I wouldn’t say that, because I don’t expect anybody to bow down to me,” Green said. “Nor do I expect you to respect me. I’m going to earn your respect. When it’s all said and done, you’ll respect me and our team.”
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
Draymond Green tried to do too much during training camp before the 2014-15 season. He took 3s off the dribble, he forced the ball to the rim, and he tried high-degree-of-difficulty passes that became turnovers. The arrival of Steve Kerr and a new coaching staff made Green nervous. He had felt secure under Jackson. Green worried he’d have to start over, down near the bottom of the rotation, and work his way back up. Here we go again, Green thought. “Forget trying to prove myself to teams or prove myself for a new contract,” Green said. “I’ve got to prove myself to a new coaching staff. Am I going to be allowed to prove myself? Am I going to get the opportunity? I didn’t know. What offense we gonna run? What position he going to play me? I didn’t know. I was scared.”
Kerr and Gentry met with Green to restore his confidence. They already liked his game. If he just played within himself, they said, he would be fine. Green calmed down and his play stabilized. “I’m smarter than that,” Green said. “But I wasn’t myself and it showed.”
The Warriors sport one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the NBA, but Green got a chance to solidify his role on the team when a hamstring injury forced David Lee to miss nearly all of the first two months of the season. Green was elevated to start in Lee’s place, and Kerr pointed to that adjustment as an early factor in Golden State’s historic success. The team won 22 of its first 25 games with Green in the starting lineup, and Kerr informed Lee, a two-time All-Star, that Green would remain a starter even after Lee recovered. “It’s worked out because [of] the number of 3-point shooting bigs in the league,” Kerr explained. “There aren’t a lot of low-post, powerful 4s that you have to deal with. It’s a smaller, faster league and we’re playing smaller and faster.”
Green took his permanent elevation to the starting lineup as a sign of trust from his coach. “It showed me that Coach Kerr’s only agenda is winning,” Green said. “You gain a certain respect for someone like that. It’s not about stats. It’s not about status. It’s just to win.”
As a player, Kerr was not a trash talker, but he understands how Green uses his mouth to throw opponents off their games and get himself going. He’s fine with the jawing as long as it doesn’t cross lines that could end up hurting the team. Kerr has discussed the term “appropriate fear” with Green and his team. “It’s pretty much our stance,” Green said. “You’re not going to be scared of anyone. You’re not going to back down from anyone. But have appropriate fear, which just means respect them. Respect that they can beat you, but at the same time, go out there knowing you’re going to win.” On a team known for its congeniality and overall “nice guy” personality, Green’s alpha-dog disposition has been especially valuable. Curry and Thompson are the Warriors’ best players and leaders on the floor, but Green can also step up and serve as an emotional leader in the locker room and in the huddle. “We need that brashness that he has,” Kerr said. “We have a very quiet team. We’re confident, but he gives us an edge that I love.”
One of Green’s loudest moments this season came when he said nothing at all. While Green was giving a postgame interview after an early-March win over the Clippers, Dahntay Jones bumped him on his way off the court. On national television, Green stopped the interview in mid-sentence and gave Jones a sideways glance as the Clippers reserve left the camera frame. Minutes later, when asked about the altercation in the locker room, Green teased Jones, responding that he couldn’t afford to react harshly to the bump, because he meant more to the Warriors than the seldom-used Jones meant to the Clippers.
Rivers got involved a few days later, when he told reporters, “I guess that tough guy in Golden State, the bump was too hard for him, clearly, the way he reacted. My goodness. I thought the guy was tough. Anyway, that’s my take on it.”
Green shot back with the line “Cool story, Glenn,”7 which became so popular that Green had a batch of T-shirts made with the catchphrase printed on them, and he briefly sold them on the website Athlete Originals.
Glenn is Rivers’s given first name.
“I thought the Glenn thing was priceless,” Gentry said. “I’ve not heard anybody call Doc ‘Glenn’ in … it’s got to be 30 years.8 I’m not sure if his mom calls him Glenn.”
For the record, Simmons called Rivers “Glenn” on Twitter during their 2013 feud.
Green has raised his averages this season to 11.8 points and 8.1 rebounds, while shooting a career-high 44.2 percent from the field. Yet Green’s true value on the court is perhaps still best observed in the game’s smaller details. “I love watching him just set a pick for the Splash Brothers,” Izzo said. “He just sets the right pick at the right time. He’s always freeing people. He might be the best help defender I’ve seen in pro basketball.”
Green’s ability to guard multiple positions has been crucial to the Warriors’ ability to match up with different kinds of lineups. When opponents play small ball against Golden State, Green can play center and the Warriors can field five players who can pass, shoot, handle, space the floor, and push the pace. Against more conventional lineups, Green can match up with power forwards or perimeter players, and the Warriors sometimes like to have him switch on ball screens, where he can stay in front of point guards and snuff out penetration better than some players 30 pounds lighter than him. Green has struggled on defense this season only against teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, which have been able to exploit his lack of size. But teams like Memphis, which starts two big men who can score in the post, are rare in today’s pace-and-space NBA, and most nights, Green is a hassle for any opponent he’s assigned to defend.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I’m comfortable guarding any position on the floor,” Green said. “It just didn’t happen overnight. It came with a lot of work, a lot of film study and everything. But now I’m comfortable guarding anybody. I’m not saying I’m going to stop or lock everybody down, but I’m comfortable.”9
Near the end of our interview, I asked Green if there was any question we hadn’t covered. “You haven’t asked me do I think I’m the defensive player of the year,” he said. “Yes, I think I’m the defensive player of the year. I think some of the new metrics and all that stuff states the case, as well as the eye test. Obviously, we are the best defense in the league, and being one of the main pieces of that defense, one of the cores that hold the defense down, I think that makes a strong case.”
Green’s numbers don’t crack the league’s top 10 in traditional defensive measures like rebounds, blocks, and steals, but he’s the most irreplaceable player on the league’s best defense, and the advanced statistics show Green to be one of the NBA’s best defenders. He’s second behind DeAndre Jordan in defensive win shares and trails only teammate Andrew Bogut and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard in overall defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference. Green is often mentioned as a top candidate for the NBA’s defensive player of the year award, and his free agency after the season could serve as a case study on the market value of players with great advanced metrics and average traditional numbers. Green will probably never lead a team in scoring or rebounding, yet his versatility and toughness make him one of the Warriors’ most important players and a coveted asset around the league. In fact, his rapid improvement has put the Golden State front office in a difficult position. Many NBA observers expect that some franchise will be willing to offer Green a max contract. Matching a deal worth that much would force the Warriors to exceed the salary cap and pay the luxury tax, but the team likely can’t afford to lose the defensive flexibility and toughness that Green brings.
“We really like him,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. “We believe he’s a core member of our team and we believe he’s a big part of our future.” Green said he has stopped thinking about his next contract and how much money he’ll soon make. “I figured it would take care of itself when it’s time,” Green said. “July 1 ain’t coming no sooner than it’s going to come, whether I sit here and worry about it or just let it happen. And honestly, the more you worry, the longer it’s going to feel like.”
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
Rather than focus on his next contract, Green thinks about all the times he’s had to prove himself in his career — and how many more times he’ll have to do it again. Green believes he can serve as an example for anyone, that any obstacle can be overcome, that any doubter can be proved wrong.
He is undersize.
“My heart is bigger than most guys who have size over me.”
He can’t shoot.
“But I’ll knock them down whenever you need me to.”
He is a second-rounder, not long for the NBA.
“I’ll continue to prove them wrong over and over again.”
No matter how well he plays, how much money his next contract is worth, and how much success his teams have with him on the floor, Draymond Green expects people to doubt him.
“At some point, will they learn?” he asked. “Will they figure it out? They’ll have to believe [in me] at one point or another. Some of them have ate their words already. Some of them will eat them sooner than later.”