It’s time we stop making fun of Jeff Green

For years, NBA general managers looked at Jeff Green and imagined what he could be. Standing 6’9” with elite athleticism, budding isolation skills, a smooth-enough shot, and the ability to play either forward position, the Georgetown product had every tool.

He’d averaged 14 and 6 in his first three-plus seasons with Seattle (RIP) and Oklahoma City. And when Celtics mastermind Danny Ainge came calling for James Harden in 2011, his OKC counterpart Sam Presti dangled Green as an alternative to the future MVP.

Ainge relented. The youngster would be Boston’s LeBron-stopper and, together with Rajon Rondo, the team’s Big Three succession plan. That’s, of course, not how things went.

LeBron and the Heat stomped the Celtics in the playoffs, with Green’s svelte frame little match for the King at his peak. The next year, Green missed an entire season of development with a legitimately frightening heart condition. Shoved into a featured role within a year of his return, he never quite convinced. The team faded along with Green’s allure.

But the tools remained. The Maryland native could be a valuable starter, front offices thought, even if he wasn’t a future star. And so the Grizzlies and Clippers, both pseudo-contenders with glaring needs at small forward, gave up valuable first-round picks to acquire him in consecutive years. The Magic then paid him $15 million to lead what became one of the worst bench units in basketball. Last year, he joined Cleveland’s futile bid to take down the Warriors.

None of those transactions worked out. Every team that has traded for or signed Green has come away disappointed.

Some of the disappointment falls on the man himself. He never drove left. He took questionable pull-up jumpers. His raw athleticism didn’t result in blocks, or deflections, or rebounds. From ages 20 to 30 – an entire damn decade – his teams improved on a per-possession basis when he sat.

But putting all the blame on Green’s shoulders would be wrong. Boston envisioned him as a future bucket-getter, despite his so-so efficiency numbers in OKC. Memphis and Los Angeles then branded him a 3-and-D wing, even though he neither shot threes nor defended at a particularly high level.

He wasn’t exactly a square peg in a round hole. He was more like a round peg in a square one –he could fit into several different roles, but he never quite filled them. The results just didn’t match up with the expectations.

Until now.

Green is having a resurgent season (or, just “surgent,” I guess?) in Washington, a place where expectations are pleasantly low. He’s posted a career-high 60.7 true-shooting percentage, and the team is 3.0 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court. All that success comes despite a chaotic, injury-riddled campaign in DC during which Green has shuffled through countless lineup combinations, each with its own unique set of challenges.

The one constant? He’s finally playing power forward.

Green logged nearly two-thirds of his minutes at small forward, and the other third at the four, in Boston and Memphis. Those numbers flipped in LA and Orlando, but even that amount of time on the wing was overkill. With a high stance and tight hips that just don’t swivel enough, Uncle Jeff has always had trouble defending perimeter ballhandlers. His career BBall Index talent grade in perimeter defense is a C-.

Combine the defensive limitations with hesitant three-point shooting, and you got a wing whose value depended on having the ball in his hands, which was not somewhere you wanted it.

Now that he’s a full-time power forward, the ball isn’t sticking quite so much. Scott Brooks’ bigs play supporting roles – setting screens, spotting up, making hand-offs. That’s an ideal spot for a big fella who can do a little bit of everything.

Green’s taking a career-high 41.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and canning them at a 37 percent clip, both impressive numbers for a notoriously reluctant bomber. Weakside defenders still ignore him to clog the lane, forcing the ball his way. But that’s a fine landing spot for a possession considering he’s converted 51.4 percent of his corner threes:

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Opponents visibly cheat back toward him after he hits one or two long balls. Cheat too close, though, and he’ll drive right by (emphasis on the “right”):

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Many stretch bigs don’t have those countermoves. But Green wasn’t reared as a stretch big. He has the instincts of wing slasher just now honing his long-range jumper.

And it’s not like he’s just standing around in the corner. Many of Washington’s sets involve Green shuttling up top to participate in the main action. Sometimes, he’ll just receive a pass and reverse the ball. The 11-year pro does this simple work smoothly, using his wing-like ball skills to free up teammates. But he can also freelance when a play fizzles out or a juicy passing lane opens. He drops dimes like these on a nightly basis:

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Other times, Green is the recipient rather than the passer. Now that he’s more comfortable pulling the trigger from deep, he’s a pick-and-pop threat after setting screens. Bigs who drop too deep to contain the ballhandler are toast:

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Those who trap or switch are at risk of letting Uncle Jeff slip right by. The dude can still get up and throw down:

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Washington’s attack flows at a rotation-best 110.6 points per 100 possessions when Green’s on the court. His shooting is a big plus, sure, but his other work – facilitating at the elbow, filling lanes on the break, corralling lobs bound for Row Z – is just as valuable.

Brooks has even deployed Green as an undersized center for a smidge over five minutes per game. Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard have been hurt, and Thomas Bryant is an infant, so it makes sense. Those lineups leak points – 114.3 per 100 possessions to be exact – according to NBAWowy. But they trounce teams at the other end, posting an elite 122.9 offensive rating.

Playing Green at center pulls opposing bigs out of the paint and allows Brooks to add one more ball-mover to loosen up the defense and create driving lanes. In those minutes, the Wizards take 37.2 percent of their shots at the rim and sink them at a 72.8 percent clip. Both numbers would pace the NBA.

That defense for offense trade-off is Green in a nutshell. The Wiz allow a putrid 111.9 points per 100 possessions with Green on the court, and he gets a big fat F in BBall Index’s talent grades for both interior and perimeter defense among bigs with more than 500 minutes logged.

He doesn’t make grave mistakes or saunter back in transition. But he doesn’t do much well, either. His playmaking in help situations isn’t anything special. And in on-ball duels, his technique fluctuates between “statue” and “hunchback”.

You could do much worse than having Green as the least effective defender in a five-man lineup, though. He is, at the very least, big and athletic enough to avoid getting abused in crunch time situations alongside more talented defenders.

He’d be a great fit somewhere next to a vacuum-cleaning stopper in need of spacing (think Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, or Clint Capela). Which is to say, he’d be a great fit somewhere other than Washington.

With the Wizards hovering outside the playoffs and a host of teams in need of a versatile stretch four, Green’s expiring contract may actually have trade value. Ernie Grunfeld hasn’t shown an appetite for a firesale just yet, but a decent second-rounder or a heavily, heavily protected late first may be enough to attract his gaze. If not, the hometown vet will simply stick around and help the team scrap for the eight seed. That’s not the end of the world.

Washington’s coaching staff deserves credit for having teased this much productivity out of a player in his thirties. But it also feels like Green’s journeyman background has prepared him for his late-career renaissance. He developed real off-the-bounce chops as a high-usage scorer with OKC and Boston. His days alongside Chris Paul in LA and LeBron in Cleveland taught him how to relocate on the perimeter as a spot-up threat. He became something of an elbow hub playing with bench units in Memphis and Orlando.

Green seems to have become a solid, underrated player not in spite of, but because of, his many seasons as a flaky, overrated one. He’s now a trade asset, an impending free agent worth well more than the minimum, and a significant contributor to Washington’s recent 5-3 stretch.

After all these years, a GM who lusts over Jeff Green is almost a trope. Too many executives have tried and failed to make him something he’s not. But Green is finally in a role that’s revealed what he really is – a versatile, capable big man who might finally make a GM happy.

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