There’s a great quote in Kirk Goldsberry’s recent, brilliant LeBron James article on Grantland that stirred dozens of thoughts in my head. Here it is:
“For me, the one-on-one guy I believe I can get around every time. But it’s always the second or third guy that I’m paying attention to, and I’m seeing plays before they happen.”
That’s James describing what it’s like to have super powers. It creates more than a few questions. The most important being: How many current NBA players are actually capable of thinking this way? Less than five? It’s an insane, intuitive skill that can’t be taught. Either you have this vision—this innate sense—or you don’t. At least I believe that’s the case.
Of course, this also has me thinking about Jeff Green. But what doesn’t?
This season has been perhaps the most sanguine of Green’s career. He’s the leading scorer on a division-leading NBA team (don’t laugh!). And on the offensive end he’s beginning to shed his reputation as a submissive and complicated force-of-nature-only-when-he-wants-to-be. The one area of Green’s game that’s been most in need of development, though, is his passing ability. It’s a weakness that stands in direction correlation with his tentativeness as a consistent scorer. Since he left Georgetown, and John Thompson III’s Princeton offense, Green hasn’t been very good at reading defenses.
He also can’t create opportunities for teammates off the dribble, or effortlessly run a pick-and-roll in semi-transition. As awesome a scorer he’s been this year, being able to do both those things would greatly improve Boston’s offense, which could stand to see some enhancement.
Brad Stevens told Grantland’s Zach Lowe as much in a recent and candid interview. Here’s Stevens on Green’s passing ability:
“One of the things we’re trying to do is have him play more in the pick-and-roll than he has in the past. And you have to realize, this is a guy who has played the majority of his life at [power forward], and he’s playing [small forward] almost exclusively. And that transition is a lot harder than going [small forward] to [power forward].”
Green is not LeBron James. He will never be 80% of LeBron James. But over the past couple weeks he’s begun showing potential that previously wasn’t there. He’s looking off defenders when coming off a screen while maintaining his dribble. He’s finding open shooters and reading when it’s the right time to hit the roll man, whether he’s diving towards the rim or popping behind the three-point line.
It’s a recent occurrence—and still happens only once or twice a game—but it’s promising. Every time it happens, Marti Gras levels of exuberance flutter deep inside Stevens’ soul. So far as the Boston Celtics go, this is really interesting evolution.
Here’s Green taking a high screen from Jared Sullinger. Knicks center Andrea Bargnani breaks from moonlighting as a garbage bag for a few quick seconds and decides to sag off Sullinger to contain Green’s oncoming surge.
If you can, look at the direction Green’s face is looking. Two Celtics, Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass, are open and available for a pass (in Bradley’s case, it’d be a spot up long two, which wouldn’t be a bad look considering the shot clock and his precision from that area this season).
Now look at Carmelo Anthony, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Bargnani. All three have their attention focused towards the top of the key, with their body weight shifting in that direction. The ball is still in Green’s hands, but he’s airborne with Iman Shumpert’s hand in his face. A pass is coming.
Indeed a pass does come, straight into Sullinger’s cozy mitts. Boston ends the possession with a dunk. These are the plays that separate superior players from the very good. Green manipulates an entire defense (a poor one, but still) then force feeds his teammate with an easy deuce. These plays are rare, but they’re happening more and more.
For his career, Green’s assist rate has been 8.2%. He’s now at 8.0% on the season, averaging 1.6 assists per contest (exactly his career average). As Stevens said, it isn’t so much the numbers that matter but how Green’s utilizing himself within the offense. Boston’s going to him more in pick-and-rolls and he’s handled himself quite well. There’s still a penchant to look for his own shot, but that’s expected. This won’t click overnight.
Here’s Green in the beginning stages of a side screen-and-roll. Sullinger is his partner once again. In the weak side corner stands Avery Bradley. Brandon Bass is soaking up Bradley’s man’s attention, while Kevin Garnett (I can’t stop crying) slides across the paint to help out. Brook Lopez tries to keep Green from driving towards the middle of the floor, but that’s easier said than done.
Again, Green leaps in the air with several choices. Jordan Crawford is positioned well within his range (meaning he’s standing somewhere in Brooklyn) and Bass has the smaller Alan Anderson posted up on his back, albeit with limited room to operate. Then there’s always the option of throwing it back to Sullinger in the strong side corner, but that’s kind of what Brooklyn wants—Sullinger would have 10 seconds to deal with an oncoming Lopez/Garnett dragon. Green bypasses all them and whips a dart to Bradley in that weak side corner. The three goes in.
Green has yet to manifest any consistent court vision/passing ability during a single game, let alone an entire season. But he’s doing little things now that he hasn’t done in the past. He may never share LeBron James’ ability to see into the future, but that’s fine. All the Celtics need from Green is for him to see the court.
Michael Pina has bylines at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth, and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.