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Friday, 11 November 2016 09:50

From Russia With Love: The Return of Gerald Green

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What happens when you don’t live up to expectations? When you’re a small fish in a big pond that is running out of water? When you’re an NBA player continuing to struggle to find your game and your team? Let’s take a look at one player’s journey, in the premier episode of The Garden Report Podcast.

Listen to the premier epsiode in the player above of The Garden Report Podcast. Below is the written version of this premier podcast episode.

Many players hold on to the NBA for as long as they can, before they eventually begin a second phase of their careers overseas. They regrettably bid the NBA farewell and find themselves starting anew in Italy or Turkey or Croatia or China. But a lucky few make it back, and today we will talk about one of them.

This is From Russia with Love: The Return of Gerald Green.

From Boston to the Black Sea

Gerald Green’s journey began in Boston. He was a first-round pick for the Boston Celtics back in 2005. It was the second straight year Danny Ainge selected a high school phenom, after hitting a home run on Al Jefferson in the middle of the first round the year before. Green even was a starter at one point, scoring 13 points per game in 26 starts after both Paul Pierce and Tony Allen went down for the year in the 06-07 season.

His hype continued to build, with Kobe Bryant calling him, “a hell of a talent,” that reminded Kobe of himself. When Green won the dunk contest at all-star weekend, he looked like he could become the athletic compliment to Paul Pierce’s methodical ground game. But then he was shipped with half of his teammates to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett, which he was actually pretty cool with.

”Shoot, I would trade myself for Kevin Garnett too,” Green said. “There's never been any hard feelings at all. I don't think I left on bad terms.”

While a new Big 3 era rose and fell in Boston, Green floundered through the western conference, with inconsistent bouts of scoring in a split year between the Wolves and the Rockets before one final season in Dallas. The problems began in Minnesota, where he started the season at the bottom of the depth chart and never really broke through. He made waves for his unforgettable dunk contest performance, where he blew out the candle on a cupcake sitting on the rim.

But when the Wolves surprisingly declined his final year option, he requested a trade. As Paul Pierce said at the time, Gerald was still trying to find himself. But it turned out, the answer wasn’t in Houston. He was traded to his hometown on February 21 and was released three weeks later.

His last shot came in Dallas, a place he chose over multiple other teams to make sure he stuck, and it looked like things were clicking, when spent a month as the starting small forward when Josh Howard went down in November. He carved out an inconsistent, but still present role in the Mavs rotation as they eventually fell to the Nuggets in the conference semis. Green spent the entirety of the elimination Game 5 watching from the bench. But with 34 seconds left and a 14-point deficit, coach Avery Johnson realized the season was over. He brought in Gerald, who drew a foul on his first possession. He would miss both free throws and walk off the court. It would turn out to be his final moment in the NBA…for the time being.

The Eurasian Odyssey

Doc Rivers said Gerald would have been an all-star if he had listened to him when he had the chance. Green even admitted he didn’t understand it until he got to Dallas. Gerald said, “When you’re winning, it’s a whole different atmosphere. I didn’t understand a winning atmosphere until I got to Dallas. When I got to Dallas, that’s when I understood, ‘Wow. We’ve got to really take things seriously. These people don’t play.’”

So when Dallas didn’t work out and the next summer came up with no NBA offers, he took his talents to south beach. Or rather, the southern tip of Russia in the Black Sea. He played for Lokomotiv Kuban in Krasnodar, which Forbes named the best city for business in Russia. But it was a basketball wasteland for Green. He lasted a few games before his release. He would eventually play for the Lakers’ summer league team, but ended up back in Russia with Krasnye Krylya. He would be teammates with former Spur DeJuan Blair, but he was completely miserable outside of the gym.

Green told Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams in 2012 that the biggest part of the culture shock was being the only black person around. He described a daily life where he was the only black person in town, which was as much a shock for him as the Russians staring at him in complete confusion. He said all throughout Russia, people in small cities would come up to him and grab his skin to see if it was paint. He was an alien making first contact and it was the type of experience that made him insular. It drove Green to focus his energy in the gym and love the game, rather than play it.

After Russia, Gerald tried one last go around, when the NBA lockout hit in 2011. He signed with the Foshan Longlions in Guangzhou, China in October. But Green was not interested in fitting into the team system and was released after four games. Green had 26.5 points per game, but the team went 1-3. An English language report from China described Green as the former NBA slam duck contest winner.

“I wanted to be an NBA player. It was something I had to change for myself. I always used to sit here and point the finger at what everyone else was doing. At that point, I just told myself, 'What could I do to change? What could I do to change myself? What could I do to change off the court and on the court to be a better basketball player?’”

He was too far from home. It was time to come back.

Back and Better Than Ever

The D-League was a better fit for Green, who had the motivation of NBA eyes on a consistent basis. After being waived by the Lakers just before the lockout shortened season began, he resurrected his career with their D-League team. Under coach Erik Musselman, Green would go on to win MVP of the D-League All-Star team for the LA D-Fenders. Musselman helped keep Green in a mindset to improve as a player, rather than get called up. It was focusing on the former that fostered the latter. His more controlled and well-rounded game had grown enough to impress Nets GM Billy King, who brought on Green for a 10-day deal after the trade deadline. He became a revelation for the Nets, who were headed nowhere under his coach from Dallas, Avery Johnson, and were ready to embrace Green’s energy and roller coaster scoring. For all-star Brook Lopez, Green was a sigh of relief.

“He was just high energy, he always came to the game and picked the energy level and effort level up. It brought life to us,” Lopez said. “We looked to him to do that every night and it was absolutely something he did off the bench.”

He scored 20 in seven games and showed significantly improved defense from his last tour of the league. The excitement peaked when Green converted one of the greatest dunks in the history of the game. He picked up where he had left off a few years back. It was a defining play for a rough final year in New Jersey for the Nets, one of the few bright spots of the year for Lopez.

Come summertime, Green earned a three-year deal from Indiana, the first long-term security he had enjoyed in years. But once again, Green didn’t last long. He only spent a season in Indy before being traded to the Suns. It was initially a frustrating experience for Green, but it ended up saving his career. If his journey to the other side of the world turned him around, it was playing for Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix that catapulted it.

“I think he just felt confident,” Hornacek said. “We knew sometimes maybe take a little bit of a wild shot that’s not a typical coaches shot that they want. But we knew that we had to kinda accept a few of those from Gerald because then all of a sudden, ‘Oh that’s a bad shot,’ but it would go in. So that was just Gerald.”

For Green, it was a system that took advantage of his greatest asset: unpredictability. He had plenty of freedom and was constantly in motion.

“Phoenix is like the run and gun team,” Green said. “We used to do a drill where we'd try to score in the first seven seconds. We used to do that in practice. Once we came into the games, that was like natural for us. People didn't understand the way we were playing. That's just how we played.”

To his coach Hornacek, it was all about getting Green fed the ball in the right situations. Coming off a pindown, moving in transition, the pace of play and offensive scheme was just right for him.

“He had some guards that really fed him the ball,” Hornacek said. “Looked for him ‘cause they enjoyed some of the stuff that they can do. So, you know, Gerald’s a good solid player.”

The guy doing most of the feeding was Goran Dragic, who had a career year playing next to Green after taking the mantle from Steve Nash. Dragic would again be his teammate last season in Miami.

“I know him really well,” Dragic said. “We spent together, what, three years. You know, he is instant offense. He’s such an explosive guy. He can give you quick 20 points and he was awesome when I was playing with him.”

His time in the D-Leauge helped Gerald develop the nuanced skills of a starting-caliber wing. He had been the scorer on the ball his whole life, which was why he thrived in Boston. That was his role on a broken team. But in Minnesota and Houston, they had no need for an offensive black hole. By the time he was making his second stint in the league, he had finally accepted and understood how to balance his repertoire to make himself useful. That was where his absurd athleticism finally became a real advantage. His athleticism was still at its peak and he had finally harnessed it to be useful in a game situation.

“When he was playing in the fast break, in the open court,” Lopez said. “Or you know coming off pindowns, down screens, that sort of thing, he was able to use his athleticism. You know obviously use his shot to his advantage.”

A big thing for Green was becoming a creator. His game had been one-dimensional, but now he was driving and kicking, slipping pocket passes and resetting out of clogged lanes. For Green, there was one improvement that he felt changed his career.

 “I think my vision,” Green said. “I think I’ve always had the ability to pass. I think just learning the game and seeing those tight spaces and being able to make the pass. You know, you can’t do something unless you don’t see it.”

His game had become more about exploding when he needed to, rather than when he planned.

“He’s just put so much more -- I guess techniques and fundamentals and melded that with his athleticism,” Lopez said. “Obviously he still uses his athleticism to his advantage. He can outplay guys just by out thinking them with the moves he has.”

He had been labeled a maverick, a gunner, but grew past it.

“Nah, I wouldn’t say I was like a wild mustang, man,” Green said. “I was just able to go up and down the floor and use my athleticism to my advantage.”

Phoenix allowed him to be more of that old mustang self. Their organized chaos was ideal for him, even if he was now more domesticated than wild.

 “It depends on the style of course,” Dragic said. “In Phoenix we were more up tempo. So you just hit him in transition or he gonna – He’s such a good shooter in catch and shoot or from the dribble. But here in Miami, it was a little bit different because we have different style, different set plays. But he can create his own shot. It look easy to him. From pin downs. If they gon’ block it, he can come from the other side. Or you can throw him a lob and you can do a lot of stuff.”

South Beach: Familiar Faces, But a Familiar Fate

Following Dragic over from Phoenix to Miami eased the transition for Green. But overall, Miami’s system wasn’t a good fit. In his first year in Phoenix with Dragic, the offense was free flowing, but always in Dragic’s control. But in the 14-15 season, the three-headed point guard attack with Isaiah Thomas, Eric Bledsoe and Dragic proved to be disastrous. Green’s role took a hit and when his defensive effort waned, Jeff Hornacek put him on notice. Green said he wanted to stay, but didn’t think the feeling was mutual. It wasn’t, so Green signed with the Heat in the offseason. Hornacek had offered an early hint at why he wasn’t staying in early April that season.

 “(Green) never really seemed to get it going and then it comes to the point where, if you’re not scoring and if your defense isn’t picking up, it’s hard to stay in the game,” Hornacek said in 2015. “The next guy is going, ‘I needed help here and the guy wasn’t here.’ We’re trying to develop something for the future, not just being out here for everybody to play in the game. We want to get to a top-notch winning level and you’ve got to do it on both sides,”

Playing with Dragic again, who had been traded midseason, provided Green some familiarity. But the Heat were one of the slowest paced teams in the league. Green found himself trapped in the corner most possessions, watching his 20s and historic athleticism go for the most part under utilized.

“In Miami, it was all about slowing it down, giving it to our core guys, giving it to our horses, D-Wade and Chris Bosh,” Green said. “That's something we did periodically, just kind of play off those guys and get your shots from there.”

The system may not have been a good fit, but the locker room was. He watched Hassan Whiteside, another notable transcontinental journeyman, rise to prominence and earn himself a $98m deal. They were kindred spirits, both going through the journey out in China and making their way back.

“It was just more like we knew each other’s stories,” Whiteside said. “We knew what it takes to get here. He’s one of the hardest working players I’ve played with. That’s just how he is as a person.”

Whiteside found himself confronted with the same conundrum as Green when he was on the other side of the world. He played in China and Lebanon, but belief in himself kept the valleys of his career from bottoming out.

Green had an important role in Miami, but this time it was as a mentor. For a player who so desperately needed guidance in his career, Green had matured the hard way. When the Heat drafted Justice Winslow, who knew Gerald from being in Houston, Green took him under his wing.

“He just kind of taught me that confidence, that amnesia to shoot it with confidence, miss or make you know to go to the next play,” Winslow said. “A lot of times Gerald would take some good shots, take some bad shots. But he was just shooting it with confidence and miss or make, he moved on to the next play.”

Green was one of the final players drafted out of high school and he became the poster child for why the league expanded its age minimum. But his improbable rejuvenation has become a new example in the league. Green has shown how even the most immature young players can grow. How they can balance their emotional and basketball imperfections with commitment and flexibility. It was an important lesson for Winslow, who came into the league with a sterling reputation and needed to learn how to stay on track. It helped Winslow push himself in front of Green in the rotation.

“A guy like that, he was drafted, was in the league was out the league, so he taught me how to just consistently everyday to get better, just work on your craft and come ready and focus and prepare because you never know when your name is going to be called upon. So it was just great having him.”

But Green had a bizarre incident at his apartment complex that saw him briefly leave the team. He worked his way back in, but Josh Richardson and Winslow supplanted him in the rotation as Green finished the year with a whimper. He found himself in the exact same spot he was in, a year before, and this summer signed a veteran minimum deal in Boston. He was finally back where it all started.

Part 5: Coming Full Circle Back in Boston

The most interesting thing about returning home is seeing how your perspective changes. When you visit your childhood home, just the fact that everything looks so much smaller can be bewildering. Things that seemed so vital turned out to be some of the most inconsequential banalities of everyday life.

So for Green, returning to Boston, after running the spectrum of imaginable roles on a basketball team across the globe, being the elder statesman fits just right. Green is now 30 and he is ready to be the player he wishes he listened to when he was coming into the league.

“I'm a veteran player so what I'm going to do is be professional,” Green said. “Whatever role they give me, I'm going to do it. If it's starting one night, coming off the bench one night, not playing another night, whatever it is, I'm going to be a professional about it.

As he made his way through the league in his second stint, he changed a lot of preconceived – and frankly well earned – opinions of his priorities and work ethic. The guy whose former teammates and coaches had said h e needed to want it more, was a worker and a leader. Although the endings never have been as good as the beginnings, he has done what he needs to do to survive in the NBA.

“You know he’s an amazing talent,” Whiteside said. “He’s a really hard worker. I didn’t realize how hard that guy worked.”

Whiteside got to see him up close over a decade into his career. But that work ethic and professional demeanor took Green a long time to embrace.

“I was fresh out of high school so I didn't really know any better,” Green said. “Now, this is my 12th season professionally so I'm very mature now. I still got a lot in the tank. Legs feel good, everything feels good about myself. I feel like I've learned so much about myself. I feel like I'm way better defensive player. I know I'm a way better defensive player than when I first came here. I know all the schemes and terminology.”

So he is a more equipped player with a better temperament. But that has only gotten him so far in recent years. Every strong start has eventually burnt the candle at both ends. So why come back to Boston?

“Hearing how the players really had adapted to Coach Stevens,” Green said. “All the players are playing for him so I just wanted to be a part of that. I remember in Miami when we played them, they looked like they were having so much fun. I don't know, I just felt like I wanted to be a part of that.”

His new coach wants him there so he can be Gerald Green. Stevens hasn’t seen much of Green yet after getting hurt coming into preseason, but Green has slowly worked his way into the second unit.

“He’s a guy that can do what he does, right?” Stevens said. “Then hopefully, you can feed him while he’s hot and he can space the floor for himself and others, regardless.”

The Stevens system mirrors a lot of the same principles Phoenix still had transitioning out of the seven seconds or less era under Hornacek. His former coach sees an ideal fit for Green in Boston.

“Absolutely,” Hornacek said. “Brad does a great job with his players -- enabling them to use their strengths and, yeah, he’s going to be great here.”

Gerald understands he won’t be starting and he won’t be dropping 20 every night. He is being utilized as a pseudo-replacement for Evan Turner, creating in tight spaces for the second unit. Green tends to be steadily operating on the outskirts of the play, stepping in when he needs to take control. He’ll run a quick side pick-and-roll to slip a pocket pass to a rolling Tyler Zeller. He’ll come off a pindown to pop a three from the elbow. He’s doing what he does best.

“I'm just going here to play my game, be a veteran and a leader at all levels,” Green said. “That's something I learned over the years. Just because you're not the captain doesn't mean you can't lead at all levels and that's what I'm trying to do.”

For him, he just wants to finish something off the right way.  Boston just might be the place it finally happens.

“For me to be back here to be playing for the city that has drafted me after all these years, after all of the years that I've learned, it's good to finally be back.”

Jared Weiss

Jared Weiss is the Celtics Locker Room Reporter and Host of The Garden Report: Celtics Post Game Show on Celtics Blog and CLNS Radio. J Weiss hosts The Block Party on Thursday nights at 8 PM and enjoys long walks on the beach while watching Rajon Rondo game footage. You can reach J Weiss at JWeiss@clnsradio.com and @CLNS_JaredWeiss.