HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The dunk was so unbelievable that TNT analyst Kenny Smith hyperventilated to broadcast partner Charles Barkley during the 2008 NBA All-Star slam dunk contest.
Gerald Green indeed puffed out a candle stuck into a cupcake on the back of the rim. The reigning slam dunk king soared above the cylinder, blew out the flame and flushed the basketball in a single, stunning move.
The joint blew up. Green lapped it up. And for one night, the then-22-year-old Green was no longer just a bench warmer for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Green is now days from turning 28, and he has never been happier. He is worlds removed from that sizzling February night in ’08, his cupcake dunk never more meaningless. These days, he is a key contributor for the surprising Phoenix Suns.
The wildly athletic wing wants substance to define the rest of his career, a journey that began as a straight-out-of-high-school phenom, the Boston’s Celtics’ first-round pick in the 2005 NBA Draft.
A rocky NBA start
Green came out of high school with a remarkable athleticism and a tantalizingly smooth jumper. He was a mostly good-natured but naive kid, a skinny baller from Houston’s southeast side. His dunks soon became the stuff of legend.
Still, Green was incapable of thinking the game beyond a playground level, oblivious to the pressures and demands of the NBA world.
“I always treated basketball when I was younger like a hobby, something I loved to do, something that kind of kept me away from doing something bad or doing something crazy,” Green told NBA.com during a phone conversation on the team’s recent road trip. ”It was an extracurricular activity in my life. But once I did it for a living, I still kept treating it as a hobby instead of a job.”
After a forgettable 2008-09 season with the Dallas Mavericks, his fourth NBA team in four years, owner Mark Cuban laid out Green’s essential flaw in front of an audience of NBA executives and basketball writers at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the context of explaining how valuable advanced statistics can be, Cuban turned to fellow panel member and Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren and famously said: “We had Gerald Green. You had Green. He does stuff [athletically] that makes you say, ‘Oh My God!’ … He just doesn’t understand the game of basketball.”
Most NBA executives were in agreement. Green just didn’t get it.
‘The tools to be successful’ now
There is irony today in Cuban’s comment. In ’05, Suns first-year general manager Ryan McDonough was cutting his teeth in the Celtics’ front office. He scouted Green extensively and liked what he saw. Boston drafted Green with the 18th pick overall, but two unimpressive seasons later packaged him in the deal to Minnesota that landed Kevin Garnett.
This summer, McDonough traded forward Luis Scola to Indiana for young center Miles Plumlee and Green.
“The way coach [Jeff] Hornacek and I wanted to play, we wanted to go up and down and try to make the team younger and more athletic and shoot a lot of 3s, and Gerald checked all of those boxes,” McDonough said. “I think he’s proved now that he does have the tools to be successful. It just took him a little while to put it together.”
It doesn’t mean Green’s sharpening basketball IQ is quite Kobe-esque yet. Last week at Minnesota, Green swished a difficult baseline fadeaway in the final seconds, first freeing himself to get the ball and then rising high to release it over the defender. On Monday, he went 2-for-16 in a painful overtime loss at New York to end a disappointing trip at 1-4. (more…)