MSU’s Green makes sixth sense
Follow Gerry Ahern on Twitter at @GerryAhern
Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part series.
SAGINAW, Mich. – Bursts of gunfire explode every night, ignored by locals who have grown numb to the noise.
This is Saginaw, in some ways just another failing city in the industrial Midwest. Abandoned by the auto industry. Hardened by gang warfare. Defined by grim statistics. The unemployment rate is 22.9 percent. The incidence of violent crimes per person is the highest in the United States.
But there’s more to Saginaw than numbers. Car parts no longer crank off the assembly line. Big-time basketball talent does.
Kids here try to avoid the blight by honing their skills in the gyms and on the playgrounds. Their goal is simple: to get the hell out.
Michigan State’s Draymond Green is the latest prodigy to mount his escape. Deemed by some to be too heavy, too slow and not skilled enough to excel at college basketball’s highest level, he has emerged as the nation’s best sixth man, a diverse talent who could help the Spartans make another sustained run in the NCAA tournament.
Green’s willingness to sacrifice a starting role for the betterment of his team has impressed those around him. His decision to return to his reeling hometown and counsel the at-risk youngsters who remain shows him to be a leader, mature beyond his 20 years.
“Everything’s not about streets and gang violence,” Green said of his message to his peers. “There’s a lot of that going on in Saginaw. But I always want to go back and let the kids know that’s not the right road to take. You don’t have to take that road to get out.”
Green’s path to Michigan State has not been without detour. Originally committed to play for Tubby Smith at Kentucky, his recruitment reopened when Smith walked away from the Wildcats. That gave MSU, which wasn’t initially pursuing the plump prospect, a second chance to bring him to what had been his dream school since childhood.
Just a sophomore, Green has developed into a player coach Tom Izzo counts on to set the tone. At 6-foot-6, he has slimmed down from 270 pounds to 235. He’s a captain even though he comes off the bench. His ferociousness as a rebounder has brought comparisons to Charles Barkley and Dennis Rodman. His touch as a passer and communication on the court have Izzo invoking the names of two of the all-time Spartan greats – Mateen Cleaves and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
“I’ve got to admit, I did not think I was getting as good of a player as he is,” Izzo said. “I liked him. I liked him a lot. He’s got a bunch of intangibles.
“He has this ability to understand the game. He can play inside and play outside. He can guard like three or four different guys. And he can help other people. He’s more cerebral than some of the other guys.
“We’re talking about him filling the shoes of the best who have ever been here. I think he’s capable of that as long as he just keeps going.”
Draymond Green never seems to stop.
In a Big Ten tournament battle against Minnesota, he flails his arms, shouting directions at his teammates on defense. He reaches in and comes away with a steal then explodes to the rim for a slam. He snares a rebound with two hands and slaps the ball so hard you can hear the thwack in the second balcony at Conseco Fieldhouse.
When he gets tangled up and falls to the floor with Gophers big man Colton Iverson, he nearly triggers a brawl. Green is giving up four inches and 30 pounds to Iverson. But that doesn’t stop him from getting right in Iverson’s grill, spouting some searing smack before the officials intervene.
Green is without question the most intense player on the court, and he may be the smartest.
So why isn’t he starting for Michigan State?
Because Tom Izzo wants a spark and needs to get substantial playing time for his developing big men, such as freshman Derrick Nix. Izzo explained the situation to Green three games into this season, expecting him to be angry.
What he saw instead was a young man willing to adapt for the greater good.
“For him to accept that role is a big thing and that tells you a little bit about the guy,” Izzo said. “He understands the big picture. He understands that I needed somebody coming off the bench.
“I did say to my whole team a couple of times that I must be an idiot for not starting Day-Day. He’s the best guy I’ve got in there right now.”
Without Green, MSU (24-8) would not have shared the Big Ten regular-season championship, and not just because of his team-leading 7.9 rebounds per game. This year’s Spartans have at times shown a lack of the focus and fire that Izzo demands. Point guard Kalin Lucas was kicked out of practice and forced to sit out the beginning of a game against Texas-Arlington in late December. Junior guard Chris Allen was suspended for the Big Ten tournament after not meeting team responsibilities. Junior forward Durrell Summers has been repeatedly benched. At the same time he disciplined Lucas, Izzo elevated Green to captain. Green responded with 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists against UT-A.
“It’s a privilege, a blessing and an honor to be a captain in this program,” Green told reporters afterward. “But what happened the other day was more about a title. I was already helping to lead anyway.”
Izzo had at last found the player to replace the void created by the graduation of stalwarts Travis Walton and Goran Suton.
“I put him as one of the most important guys this year in that regard,” Izzo said. “He understands what he has to do. When you can talk to a guy who you think really gets it, it’s a lot easier.”
Lou Dawkins, Green’s high school coach in Saginaw, sees his pupil’s impact as more wide-ranging.
“If he wasn’t there, Michigan State would not be in the situation they are right now,” Dawkins said. “Day is very instrumental on and off the court. He has a personality that makes everybody smile. He’s very articulate, very charming. Some of it doesn’t have anything to do with basketball. He has the total package.”
Green’s upbringing in Saginaw helped shape that repertoire.
He grew up in the city’s first family of basketball. His aunt, Annette Babers, was the Parade Magazine National High School Player of the Year in 1988 who matriculated to Michigan State. His uncle, Benny Babers, was a local legend who served as Green’s first coach in Saginaw’s storied school district league at Longfellow Elementary.
Bigger, stronger and more athletically blessed than his classmates, Green stood out. Uncle Benny made sure Day-Day didn’t just camp under the basket. Though he was by far the tallest in the gym and played center, Green ran point on offense, saw the floor and caught everyone’s attention with ballhandling, shooting and passing abilities that belied his stature.
Dawkins first started to work with then 12-year-old Green on the Saginaw Junior Pride AAU team. Around the same time, Green’s parents, Raymond Green and Mary Babers, were going through a divorce. Green’s basketball skills were undeniable, but he was distracted and his work ethic was lacking. The outside influences telling Day-Day how great he was didn’t help.
“It’s hard when you have people telling you that you have things you need to work on because you have so many other people telling you that you’re gonna be the next Michael Jordan or the next Larry Bird,” Dawkins said. “You have to be mentally strong to try and cope and try to handle something of that nature.”
Through Dawkins’ tutelage and some hard knocks, Green fortified body and mind.
Playing against adults at Veterans Memorial Park from early morning to dusk gave him added perspective on how far he had to go. The young men who patrolled the courts at Vets weren’t abject to pounding on upstarts such as Green, who dared to challenge them.
“Playing with guys older than me … Just trying to play with the grown guys when I was only 10,” Green said. “They’re pushing me around, throwing me around. It built a lot of toughness.”
Dawkins continued to cultivate Green’s game at Saginaw High, a basketball factory that has sent six players on to Division I scholarships over the past six years.
The Trojans won back-to-back Class A state championships in 2007 and 2008. Green and Josh Southern – now at Boston College – provided a devastating one-two punch for the 2007 champs, who went 25-1. In 2008, Green – the runner-up as Michigan’s Mr. Basketball – capped the repeat crown with a 21-point, 19-rebound performance in the title game against Detroit Pershing. The Trojans finished 27-1.
Saginaw had dominated teams from around the state and country during its run. Its only losses came to city rival Arthur Hill High. The team had swagger and Green was its frontman, dominating physically and, sometimes, inciting verbally.
“They had a never-say-die attitude,” Dawkins said. “They didn’t care who we were playing. They didn’t care who the opposing coach was. The opponents knew that the game was over before we even got to the gym, before we even got to the bus. We had the attitude that no one in America could beat us.”
Despite the individual and team success, Green’s stock and weight fluctuated. Averaging 25 points and 13 rebounds as a junior, he was ranked the No. 78 prospect overall in the Class of 2008 by Rivals.com and the No. 31 power forward.
Kentucky’s Smith had seen enough to invite Green for an on-campus visit the weekend of the Florida-UK game in February of 2007. ESPN GameDay was there. So was Dick Vitale. A huge crowd from the Big Blue Nation shook Rupp Arena with its cheers. Both Dawkins, who played collegiately for Smith at Tulsa, and Green were awestruck and a little stunned when a scholarship offer came on the spot.
Everything changed a month-and-a-half later with Smith’s decision to leave Kentucky – where there were calls for his dismissal – for Minnesota. Izzo and Michigan State assistant Mark Montgomery found themselves back in the picture, along with Michigan and Indiana. Montgomery told Izzo, “got to get him.” When Maurice Joseph transferred from MSU to Vermont, a slot opened. Green pledged to the Spartans in June of 2007. But after suffering an ankle injury his senior year, his waistline expanded. He was pushing 300 pounds. Many didn’t expect he would make much of an impact at MSU because of his bloated body.
Green knew to gain respect and playing minutes, he was going to have to drop serious weight while building muscle and quickness.
“I played my whole senior season of high school overweight and still averaged 25 points and 16 or 17 boards,” he said. “Once I got here, guys had the same amount of talent or more. Everyone was a superstar in high school so it changes things. If you want to be one of those players who stands out you have to increase your work ethic.”
Green arrived in East Lansing in the summer of 2008 and Izzo considered redshirting him. The theory was that the year would provide an opportunity for Green to work off the weight and acclimate to the rigors of playing major college basketball in one of the nation’s top programs.
Michigan State’s brutal practices and work with strength and conditioning coach Mike Vorkapich helped Green burn significant fat. He rounded into playing shape. When teammate Raymar Morgan developed mononucleosis in January and was slow to recover, Izzo had ditched the thought of keeping Green on the shelf. From February on, he averaged double-digit minutes.
Green provided an infusion of energy as a reserve and showed a basketball IQ that blew away the veterans on the team. He became a key contributor during the Spartans’ NCAA tournament run to the 2009 Final Four. Green racked up nine rebounds against USC, 10 against Louisville. In the 82-73 national semifinal victory over Connecticut at Detroit’s Ford Field, Green knocked down 3 of 4 shots, pulled down some key boards and helped offset UConn’s vaunted frontcourt of Hasheem Thabeet, Jeff Adrien and Stanley Robinson.
A crushing loss to North Carolina in the title game only intensified his resolve in the offseason. With an improved physique, a starting spot seemed a near certainty.
Then Izzo, who has led the Spartans to five Final Four appearances and a national championship, tossed the sixth-man curveball.
Green knocked it out of the park.
“The world knows now how good he is,” Dawkins said. “The world knows how good of a passer he is, how great of a rebounder he is, how great a communicator he is. It doesn’t make a difference if you start or not.”
Back in his cluttered office at Saginaw High, Dawkins points to photos tacked to the walls marking the glory days. There’s Green soaring for a rebound. There’s Green and Southern celebrating a state championship.
The Saginaw native who returned to his roots to succeed his mentor, legendary coach Marshall Thomas, couldn’t be more proud of Green and his other players. Dawkins cares about these kids as if they were family.
Relatives celebrate the good times together. They also rally amid tragedy.
Last June, Dawkins had to deal with the worst news a father can get. His 14-year-old son Dorian collapsed and died after competing in the Tom Izzo Spartan Shoot Out tournament in East Lansing. Dorian was considered a can’t-miss college prospect who had already caught the eye of recruiters. A heart defect known as myocardial ischemia claimed him that hot summer day. The initial shock was eventually replaced by disbelief.
Why Dorian? Why like this?
“It’s natural now in Saginaw to hear a gunshot and we just keep on walking, just keep watching television, whatever,” Dawkins said. “But what took place with my son last June … it was different to see someone and actually feel someone die of natural causes.”
Now more than ever, Dawkins needed the support of the community as well as current and former players. Green, who was pacing the hallways at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing the night Dorian passed, had even more reason to come back home. His visits are frequent.
“Day-Day has been a rock for all of us,” Dorian’s older brother Christian, a high school senior, told the Lansing State Journal.
The kids congregating at Saginaw High, the middle schools and elementary schools can count on Green to keep on coming. He plans to offer advice, just as former city standouts Jason Richardson, now playing in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns, and Lamarr Woodley, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, did for him.
“Saginaw isn’t the best city, but if you do things the right way, you can get out of there,” Green said. “[Jason and Lamarr] talk to me and make sure I’m going back and talking to the kids. Someone has to show them that it is possible to get out.”
And to give back.
1. Kris Joseph, Syracuse – The 6-foot-7 sophomore forward was the first Orange player honored as the Big East’s Sixth Man of the Year. He had a 23-point effort against Providence, hitting 9 of 11 field goal attempts. He’ll face his brother Maurice, who plays for Vermont, in the first round.
2. Jamar Samuels, Kansas State – Known as the X-Factor, the 6-7 Samuels earned the Big 12’s Sixth Man award. The sophomore averaged 11.9 points and shot a stellar 56.5 percent from the field. His career game was a 27-point, 10-rebound effort against Oklahoma State in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
3. Venoy Overton, Washington – Noted for his defense, the 5-11 junior guard led the Huskies with 47 steals. He showed his playmaking skills with a team-high 105 assists. A clutch free-throw shooter, Overton connected at an 86.2 percent clip from the line. That could be a key in tournament play.
4. John Jenkins, Vanderbilt – The 6-4 guard is the SEC’s Freshman if the Year. He was also honored by the conference for his play off the bench. Jenkins averaged 10.9 points a game. He had a career-high 25 points against Georgia in the SEC tournament and continues to see his playing time grow.
5. Mark Lyons, Xavier – Lyons, a redshirt freshman, became a key contributor for the Musketeers, averaging 8.4 points a game. The 6-1 guard scored a career-best 19 points in a win over St. Joseph’s, knocking down 4 of 4 3-point attempts. His shooting ability adds important backcourt depth.