Former New Orleans teammates of Willie Green not surprised by ascension to NBA head coach
Jason Smith first met Willie Green when Smith was a Philadelphia 76ers rookie forward/center in 2007. Even though Green was only 26 at the time and just five years into his NBA career, the guard was already thinking about his post-playing days and a potential coaching career.
Smith: “Willie was always like, ‘I think I could get into coaching. It’s not a bad gig.’ ”
Less than a decade and a half later, the 39-year-old Green has become an NBA head coach, with New Orleans making the hire official Thursday. A key reserve for the 2010-11 playoff-qualifying Hornets, Green is the first ex-New Orleans player to also serve as head coach with the franchise.
Former ’10-11 teammates of Green say the news of his hire came as no surprise to them.
“He was always dependable, one of those guys who are just rock-solid on your team,” Smith said of Green. “He was the same way every day, so consistent. As a teammate, you could go to him and he knew pretty much everything and anything about the game, on and off the court.”
“I wasn’t surprised when he went into coaching, because he has that personality and presence,” said Emeka Okafor, New Orleans’ starting center in 2010-11. “It seemed like a very likely path for him.”
Smith and Okafor both recall how valuable Green’s insight was as a teammate, particularly for New Orleans bigs trying to understand optimal floor positioning and how they could best help the Hornets win.
“He had this aura about him, where you knew you had to play off of him, because he’s always going to get the job done,” Smith said. “He understood everything from X’s and O’s on the court, to defensive concepts – how do I guard this pick-and-roll scenario? – so that he was always on the same page as you. You always knew exactly what he was going to do on the court. He always asked, ‘What do I need to do to help you out as a big guy?’ ”
Okafor remembers Green having a coach-like influence on him during the ’10-11 season – even though Green is only 14 months older than Okafor.
“He was big on giving words of encouragement that were uplifting,” Okafor said of conversations with Green. “He always came to me (before games) and said, ‘Hey Mek, with this (Hornets) team, the more energy you have, the better you do and the better the team does. When you do well, we all do well.’ He’d be in my ear about that.”
Green was age 29 during the one season he played in the Crescent City, but it was sometimes said around the team that he “was 29 going on 40,” a compliment based on his calm demeanor and steadying presence. His mentality quickly made him a player New Orleans’ coaching staff could rely on to play key minutes and trust in fourth quarters. It’s no coincidence that when Monty Williams took over as Phoenix’s head coach in 2019-20, he hired Green as one of his assistants. Williams was a first-year NBA head coach himself for New Orleans in ’10-11 (and briefly a Philadelphia teammate of Green, prior to Williams retiring).
“He was 29 going on 40 – and a lot of coaching staffs and organizations love that, because that’s maturity and being a guy who is reliable in crunch-time situations,” Smith said of Green. “He was wise beyond his years and never let the moment get to him.”
“Well respected, well liked, a calming presence, someone in the locker room that not only did you want to be there, but you needed him,” Okafor said. “He’s a positive person with positive energy.”
Okafor laughs when he recalls first seeing Green dunk early in the ’10-11 season, because it made Okafor believe Green was actually younger than he thought. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 8.7 points for New Orleans, mostly off the bench, and occasionally threw down high-flying slams that seemed to come out of nowhere.
“My first impression of him from the way he moved was that he was actually younger than what he was,” Okafor recalled. “He still had lightness and bounciness to him (physically). One time when he went up for a dunk, I was like, ‘Young legs!’ but then I found out he was a little bit older than I thought. But his demeanor, he was always very mature.”
Green retired from playing in 2015, then became a Golden State assistant coach under Steve Kerr in 2016-17, immediately part of consecutive Warriors championship teams. After Phoenix won the Western Conference this year, Green has coached in four of the past five NBA Finals, including every non-bubble title round since he started his career. After a total of five years for Green on the sidelines, Smith is excited to see his former teammate move into a head-coaching role.
“He was always a guy who had a passion for basketball and that willing nature to teach other players and pass on that knowledge and experience he had,” said Smith, now a Washington Wizards TV studio analyst. “He was always great in that way. He’s put his work in (as a coach) and has the trust from his peers. As a coach, when you’re in a pressure situation, you want to have poise and calm, and that’s how he is. He’s been there so many times already while coaching with the Warriors and Suns. I don’t think you can get much better experience than what he’s gotten the last few years.”