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The Problem With the Draymond Prototype

Draft season is here, meaning teams will scramble to find their own version of the Warriors’ do-it-all forward. But finding a Green replica is more complicated than it seems.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Mock draft season is now officially here, with the Boston Celtics winning the NBA draft lottery on Tuesday night. As is typically the case, most of the discussion surrounding the 2017 draft will likely focus on the first five to 10 picks. Will the Celtics make the obvious decision and take Markelle Fultz? Have the Lakers already submitted Lonzo Ball as their pick? Who will the 76ers select third overall? Which Kentucky guard — De’Aaron Fox or Malik Monk — is the better pro prospect? Who is the better Collins: Zach or John? And how long will we have to wait on draft night before the star of the show, Fran Fraschilla, shows up on our TVs to tell us all about the foreign prospects we were too lazy to even Google? There’s so much excitement surrounding what many experts believe is the deepest draft in recent memory that I almost don’t care that the lottery was obviously rigged or that seemingly every draft is dubbed the "deepest draft in recent memory."

Anyway, it seems fitting that the Warriors destroyed the Spurs 136–100 to take a commanding 2–0 series lead in the Western Conference finals just hours after mock draft season was ushered in, and even more fitting that Draymond Green turned in another ho-hum game in which he did a little bit of everything. That’s because there’s another topic you’re going to hear a lot about in the next five weeks as we approach the draft on June 22: teams trying to find "the next Draymond Green."

It’s no secret that the league has experienced a sudden and massive shift toward small ball, and the Warriors’ success with Green playing center is the predominant reason. Thus, the front-office thinking goes, if any other team could land a Green replica of its own, it could surround him with perimeter playmakers, assemble an unstoppable machine, and win 65-plus games every season much like Golden State did. And so a leaguewide hunt is on for a second-round steal who can do everything there is to do on a basketball court, from guarding all five positions (sometimes on the same possession) to emerging as the heart and soul of a roster that’s good enough to win an NBA title.

How hard can that player be to find?

Green arrived in East Lansing, Michigan, as the second-best power forward prospect in Michigan State’s 2008 recruiting class. Rivals.com listed the 6-foot-7 Delvon Roe (whose playing career was ultimately cut short by knee injuries) as a five-star recruit for the Spartans that year, while Green, who averaged 20 points and 13 rebounds in leading nearby Saginaw High School to back-to-back state championships, was considered only a three-star talent, primarily because nobody had any idea what position the then-6-foot-7, 230-pounder should play at the next level. Green had grown up wanting to go to Michigan State, but head coach Tom Izzo was hesitant to offer him a scholarship in part because the Spartans had their sights set on another power forward (Roe) and in part because Izzo couldn’t seem to make sense of Green’s game. Meanwhile, when Green committed to play for Tubby Smith at Kentucky in February 2007, Big Blue Nation did all it could to talk itself into believing that Green wouldn’t be a waste of a scholarship. In the end, Smith saw the writing on the wall in Lexington and left to become the coach at Minnesota before Kentucky could fire him; Green reopened his recruitment; and Izzo decided to take a chance on a local kid (in the process apparently cussing him out over the phone) who didn’t have a natural position but was nonetheless a proven leader and winner.

Roe quickly became a starter for a 2008–09 Spartans team that won the Big Ten title by four games and spent most of the season ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll, while Green was relegated to a bench role with varied opportunities from game to game. Anyone who has even casually followed Michigan State basketball over the past two decades knows that Izzo has a specific role in mind when it comes to his big men: They’re expected to crash the glass like their life depends on it, own the low block on both ends of the floor, finish through contact, and set a shit ton of illegal screens that don’t get called so Drew Neitzel can average 18.1 points per game as a 6-foot white dude playing in the Big Ten. There have been exceptions to this rule, with Paul Davis and Goran Suton being Spartans bigs under Izzo who were more skilled than they were physical. But Izzo — who famously made his 2000 national championship team wear football shoulder pads and helmets at practice — has long made strong, imposing big men a cornerstone of his program. Roe was a natural fit for this description, while Green was stuck in no-man’s-land: too skilled to be a traditional Michigan State big, but not yet skilled enough to follow in the footsteps of Davis or Suton.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

By the end of his freshman year, though, Green had made strides. Instead of trying to be the next Andre Hutson, Zach Randolph, Aloysius Anagonye, or Raymar Morgan, Green started embracing the idea of blossoming into the first Draymond Green. After attempting just four combined shots during the final three games of that regular season, he went 2-for-3 from the field and grabbed five boards against Minnesota in the opening game of the Big Ten tournament. He had three steals the next day in a loss to Ohio State. Less than a week later, Green scored 16 points in the Spartans’ first-round NCAA tournament win over Robert Morris, and followed that with seven points and nine rebounds against USC in the second round, and seven points and two steals in a win over Kansas in the Sweet 16. These weren’t mind-blowing performances, but a guy posting that kind of production after routinely coming close to putting up trillions all season was significant.

Then, in the Elite Eight against no. 1 seed Louisville, Green cemented his status as a breakout star of the 2009 NCAA tournament. Facing one of the best defenses in college basketball and a team with a devastating front line led by All-American Terrence Williams and two other future NBA players (Earl Clark and Samardo Samuels), Green finished with six points (on 3-for-6 shooting), 10 rebounds, three assists, and two steals in just 24 minutes of action. It was as if Green finally gave up on the idea that being a bruising rebounding machine was the only way he could be effective. His real value came from constantly being active and relying on his instincts on both ends of the floor, which is something he probably knew all along but became certain of against Louisville. Basically, if Green were a superhero, that 2009 Elite Eight game — a 64–52 victory — would be his origin story.

Green’s freshman season came to an end when the Spartans got their asses handed to them by a loaded North Carolina squad in the 2009 national championship game. As a sophomore the following year, Green again came off the bench, only now he did so as the best sixth man in college basketball. He averaged 9.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.2 steals per game in 2009–10, set a program record for most assists by a frontcourt player, was voted Michigan State’s MVP by local media, and led the Spartans to a 2010 Final Four berth after 2009 Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas ruptured his Achilles in a second-round matchup with Maryland. As a junior, Green was named a cocaptain, improved in every meaningful statistic except field goal percentage, and recorded two triple-doubles on the season (reminder: it’s damn near impossible to rack up triple-doubles in college), including a 23-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist effort in a first-round NCAA tournament loss to UCLA. Green then averaged 16.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and 0.9 blocks per game as a senior, leading the Spartans to a regular-season Big Ten title, a Big Ten tournament title, and a 2012 Sweet 16 appearance. He was named Big Ten Player of the Year, an AP first-team All-American, and even the NABC national player of the year over Anthony Davis. (Considering that Davis in 2011–12 had the single most successful individual season in modern college basketball history, that’s among the most egregious award atrocities of all time, but nonetheless offers a good idea of how great Green was.)

Green arrived at Michigan State as a tweener without an obvious position, and four years later had become so indispensable that the system in which he played had adapted to him instead of the other way around. During his time in East Lansing, he developed a reputation as a natural leader with a vibrant personality who put the team first, he had a motor that wouldn’t quit, and he shattered Mateen Cleaves’s record for most times putting his arm around his coach as Izzo gave him instruction. Then he entered the 2012 NBA draft and the cycle repeated: Green fell to the second round because scouts couldn’t figure out what position he’d play in the pros; he came off the bench his first two Golden State seasons with solid-but-underwhelming results; and then he thrived once his coach fully comprehended his greatness and built a system that suited him rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Since then, Green has become the poster child for NBA versatility, for no-shits-given personality, and for the possibilities that a second-round pick can bring. He’s also become the prototype for what many teams target during the draft, even if that prototype is virtually impossible to replicate.

If it hasn’t been made clear already, Green has essentially been the same player all along, despite what you may have been led to believe. While he’s undoubtedly improved his game over the years (especially his jump shot), his story isn’t that of a scrappy underdog who had to work really hard to become great. Green is a man who always had a diverse skill set and a high basketball IQ, who always played his balls off and took pride in his defense, and who always was confident in his abilities. It wasn’t until the basketball world appreciated what he brought to the table and adapted that he first became an All-American and then an NBA All-Star who is arguably the most valuable player on one of the best basketball teams ever assembled.

This is an important distinction to keep in mind. It’s also why for all the draft talk of finding the next Draymond, there probably isn’t going to be another version of him to come along anytime soon. I mean, you can’t just take any bulky 6-foot-7 guy with long arms and decent foot speed off the street and mold him into everything that Green is; if you could, former no. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett wouldn’t be a punchline. You have to find a guy who fits that physical description but is also brash enough to kick the best player in the world in the dick during the NBA Finals, cocky enough to constantly talk shit every time he’s in front of a microphone, and at the same time humble enough to take a backseat to three All-Star teammates (one of whom came to Golden State in part because of how Green recruited him). You have to find a guy who is dumb enough to have the audacity to think that he can guard all five positions, yet smart and athletic enough to actually be able to pull it off. You have to find a leader with the heart and mental toughness to bang in the paint with an opponent who is five inches taller than he is, the skill to consistently play on the perimeter, and the instinct to know what the team needs from him at any given moment.

The temptation is to look at Golden State’s roster and assume that any bum could align himself with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson and become at the very least a decent player. And maybe that’s true to a certain extent. Then again, maybe the opposite is accurate. Maybe Curry and Thompson wouldn’t have had the careers they’ve enjoyed if defenses didn’t have to worry about the consistent mismatches that Green creates. I’m not saying Green is a generational talent who deserves his own wing in the Hall of Fame or anything. I’m just saying that the search for the next Green is a fool’s errand because this idea that Green suddenly transformed into the player that he is couldn’t be more wrong. No team is going to pluck the next Green from obscurity, just like no team is going to magically have the next Curry, Durant, or Thompson fall into its lap. Why, then, is Green treated like a replicable entity? Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé’s love of Buddy Hield notwithstanding, why don’t we hear more about front offices being desperate to locate the next Curry, Durant, or Thompson? I’ll tell you why: because saying "we need to get players on our team who are the best in the world at what they do" isn’t exactly an enlightening thought.

The Green we see now was always right there in front of our faces, featuring the same intensity, versatility, leadership, and toughness we all know and love/hate from the time he was a three-star recruit. So unless the same can be said for any prospect in this or any other upcoming draft, we might as well call off the search for the next Draymond Green right now.