Green plays with heart of a Warrior

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

When Draymond Green became an NBA champion last year, he looked across the court and yelled to his mother, Mary Babers-Green, “Mom, they told me I couldn’t play in this league.”

For a player who had been hearing for most of his life that he didn’t measure up, it seemed like the pinnacle. He had just recorded a triple-double as the Golden State Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 to win the title.

It was the ultimate “I-told-you-so” moment. He was at the top of his game.

Or so it seemed.

To believe Green had reached his peak, to think he had gotten every ounce of game out of his 6-foot-7 frame, would have been a colossal mistake.

As Golden State prepares to face the Pistons on Saturday at The Palace, it is an astonishing 36-3 and is chasing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for the best record in NBA history at 72-10. And the biggest reason might be Green.

Sure, the Warriors have Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP, dropping 3-pointers on the league at a dizzying pace. But Green might be the key to the magic that is the Warriors.

His play during the championship run last season was just scratching the surface. Through 38 games this season, he leads Golden State in rebounds (9.7) and assists (7.3) while averaging a career-high 15.2 points.

And then there’s the triple-doubles.

Green has eight this season and, at one point, ran off three in a row. In the middle of that was a 29-point, 17-rebound, 14-assist beauty against the Denver Nuggets. It had interim coach Luke Walton gushing.

“You come to expect whatever is needed,” Walton said. “Some nights that’s his playmaking, some nights his toughness, or some nights it’s hitting a big shot. He can have four points and still be the best player on the floor.”

Few people understand that sort of impact better than Tom Izzo.

When Green arrived at Michigan State in the fall of 2008, there was plenty of attention on five-star recruit Delvon Roe. Green, meanwhile, was the pudgy kid who won a state title at Saginaw but possessed nothing about his game that stood out.

That mattered little to Green, however, as he became a key reserve in Michigan State’s run to the national title game in Detroit. He was again a big part of the Spartans’ push to the Final Four the next season, and by the time he was a senior, he’d slimmed down and led the Spartans to a Big Ten title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

When he was finished at Michigan State, Green had three triple-doubles, including two in the NCAA Tournament. The only other players to do that are Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.

Still, few believed there was a future in the NBA for Green. Again, a guy who just wasn’t athletic enough, not quite big enough — you name it. Green was a “tweener.” However, he was also a winner.

It’s that trait that has led him from reserve to starter for an NBA champion to potential All-Star.

“There are a lot of teams that passed on Draymond, and I understood it to a certain extent,” Izzo said. “You can’t measure a guy’s heart or will to win or will to get better. The only way you can see if a guy is getting better is if each year he improves some.”

That improvement is spelled out in the numbers as his points, rebounds and assists have increased in each of his four seasons in the NBA. It was similar at Michigan State, and that’s what makes Izzo shake his head.

While he admits he’s surprised by Green’s success, he also questions why he’s surprised.

“To have a high basketball IQ and to be a competitor, I think you have a chance to continuously get better,” Izzo said. “It’s scary to me because when I talk to Day-Day, he’s gonna keep getting better. You just look at what he’s changed. His body is so much better. Just so many areas of his life have changed, and is it surprising? Why should it be? He did it for four years.”

What makes Green truly unique for Izzo and the Spartans is his connection with the team. Green has always cared more about the name on the front of the jersey than the back – his $3 million gift to his alma mater last fall is proof of that.

But he has a special bond with his former coach and the players. He learned it from idolizing Johnson and listening to Mateen Cleaves and the other championship players who went before him. Green rarely misses a Michigan State game when his time permits, and he’s routinely calling and texting the current players.

Before Michigan State’s win over Kansas early in the year, he challenged each player on the team. Denzel Valentine responded with his first triple-double.

“Credit to Day-Day, man,” Valentine said. “He knows how to motivate people and he motivated us, definitely.”

Green has been bothered by a sore ankle and missed Golden State’s game at Denver on Wednesday, but he’ll be back at The Palace on Saturday and fully expects to play in front of plenty of family and friends. The Spartans won’t be there; they’ll be in Wisconsin preparing to play on Sunday. But they’ll be watching.

They’ll be watching the guy who has proven that winning is still what matters most, and doing whatever it takes is the primary goal.

He did that at Saginaw. He did it at Michigan State. And now he’s doing it for the Warriors. As Walton said, maybe Green is “the best player on the floor.”

It’s something that will forever have Izzo smiling.

“I’m proud, happy,” Izzo said. “I’ve run out of words for him. He had another big game (Monday) night and he kinda exceeds everything.”

Warriors at Pistons

Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, The Palace, Auburn Hills

TV/radio: FSD/105.1

Outlook: Former Spartan Draymond Green comes with the Warriors the night Ben Wallace’s number will be retired.