LOS ANGELES — Gerald Green won the 2007 NBA Dunk Contest.
Doc Rivers, then Green’s coach in Boston, regrets letting him even enter.
“He’s just young and winning a dunk contest at 18 in the NBA, I don’t know how healthy that is,” Rivers said (Green was actually 21 at the time). “You get all this stuff. He had a lot on his plate. I always say the biggest mistake I made with him was letting him do the dunk contest. I know that sounds crazy but it’s tough when you get all this stuff and you’re trying to get him in footwork drills and he’s like ‘Wait a minute I’ve got a commercial tomorrow.’ Now he’s fought his way back and is terrorizing the league with his skills and it’s great.”
Drafted straight out of high school the last year any player could be, then bouncing around the NBA — and Russia and China — Green is back in the Association and has truly arrived at age 28, starring with the Phoenix Suns. He and his game have matured. He is averaging 15.7 points per game — having scored 33 recently against Atlanta and 41 against Oklahoma City — and is a leader on team that is the biggest surprise in the league.
Green also is pointed to by some as the poster boy for raising the age limit to 20 — he wasn’t ready for the NBA on or off the court when he entered the league straight out of high school, at least so goes the argument. He’s always had the athleticism, the question was him knowing how to use it, how to be a professional.
“It was more maturity with Gerald, he just needed time to grow up,” Rivers said Monday night before his Clippers took the court against Green and his Suns. “That doesn’t mean he was a bad guy, he was just young. So young that he was eventually out of the league young. The fact that he fought his was back was great. There are cases where you would love guys to go to college, but I still side on the other side, I still think you have a right. You have a right to make a mistake.”
Green doesn’t think he made a mistake — he doesn’t think he’d be the player he is now without the experiences he had, good and bad.
“If I had the choice I would do the same thing over again, come out of high school” Green said. “There’s no better preparation than going straight to the NBA… I think the NBA is the best teacher.”
Green spent a couple of years under Rivers’ tutelage, then was traded to Minnesota as part of the Kevin Garnett trade.He ended up in Houston and Dallas, never really finding his game and confidence, never fitting in at an NBA level. He then went to Russia and after that played in China — in those stops where he was the best player on the team and was relied upon to put up a lot of points he really grew up. He matured into the guy helping spark the Suns.
If you think time in college — Green was likely to go to Oklahoma State University — would have helped Green grow up faster, well, Green thinks you are wrong.
“A lot of guys that go to college then go to the NBA and aren’t successful,” Green said. “College doesn’t make you become a better pro. You being a pro makes you become a better pro. You got to put in the work, you got to be professional when you get to the professional level, you got to do all the little things, you got to watch film, you got to lift weights, you got to do all the little things that make you a better player.”
That is the argument Mark Cuban made recently saying guys should consider the D-League over college. However, Green said if he could not have gone straight to the NBA he likely would have gone to college, saying to him it was the same thing as the D-League.
At the root of the argument about raising the age limit is maturity — on and off the court. The NBA wants its players to develop more before they land in the league and would prefer they did it on somebody else’s dime.
“We see it, a lot of guys who play one year in college and then they come out, it’s tough. You have to teach these guys a lot of things,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We look at the game and things we think are common sense as coaches, as guys who played in the league before, we saw that as rookies… but back then only a handful of guys came out early, guys played college three, four years. They got a pretty good idea of how to play the game before they came in the pros. Now we have to do a little more teaching, be a little more patient with mistakes they make. So raising the age might not be a bad deal.”
A lot of coaches, pretty much every owner and general manager feels the same way.
New commissioner Adam Silver has made raising the age limit a priority, although he has to negotiate that with the players union and that body still lacks an executive director. When the time comes, Silver and the owners are going to have to give up a little something to the players to get them to sign off on the new restriction.
Green is a poor poster child for the argument. First off, he was 21 when he won the dunk contest — maturity is not simply a matter of chronological age, it is a lot of factors that come together at different times in different ways for people. Certainly college can help that maturation process, but it can also happen outside that environment — on the court players would mature faster in the NBA with no restrictions on practice hours and a higher level of competition to challenge them. It just takes NBA coaches being more into player development (and look at the best teams in the league, ones like San Antonio and Indiana, and you see great player development focus).
It’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. For some, college is perfect. For others the D-League makes the most sense. For a handful of others playing in Europe might be the call.
There is not one path to maturity. And there is not one path to NBA stardom.
Certainly not for Gerald Green.