Willie Green discusses the game with Chris Paul

Willie Green’s ability to connect with players one reason Pelicans targeted him as head coach

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

The incoming text messages of an NBA front-office executive must be fascinating to read – particularly during the offseason – but this was a bit different from fielding trade ideas and proposals. As New Orleans began the process of finding a new head coach in late June and July, Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin started seeing numerous, unsolicited advice in texts from players he got to know in previous NBA stops. The messages delivered an ardent, common theme: “Griff, you need to hire Willie Green.”

The large contingent of current and former NBA players who’ve crossed paths with the 39-year-old Green had read tweets from Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania reporting that Green was a serious candidate in the Big Easy. They wanted to give their endorsement to Griffin, whose phone was then filled with the recommendations.

Last week, Green was officially named the eighth head coach in New Orleans franchise history, the first to have also played for the Crescent City’s NBA franchise (he was a key reserve guard for the 2010-11 playoff-qualifying Hornets). On Tuesday, Green was formally introduced to New Orleans media in a morning press conference.

After a 12-year NBA playing career and spending the past five seasons as an assistant coach with Golden State and Phoenix, Green has been part of seven different organizations, earning respect and admirers along the way. Griffin noted Tuesday that during the fact-finding process of learning more about Green and his background, it was impossible to find anything but praise for the Detroit native.

“That matters, it really matters,” Griffin said of the feedback he received about Green. “Because we can all find someone to say something negative about us. I have not seen a person who’s said anything negative about Willie Green. In a career that’s lasted as long as his, that’s remarkable.”

Green’s rapid rise from steady and dependable NBA role player (731 career games, 297 starts, 8.3 points per game) to the NBA’s third-youngest current head coach could be described in similar terms. Green was traded in September 2010 along with Jason Smith from Philadelphia to New Orleans, entering his eighth pro season. By that point, Green had already begun to think about a future in coaching, but he never expected to be an NBA head coach at such a relatively young age.

“No, I didn’t imagine being here, to be honest with you, being a head coach,” Green said, before referencing how he had gradually worked his way into becoming an NBA-caliber player. “I do believe in dreaming big, writing goals down and having a vision. The NBA was definitely something that I wanted to get to, even in high school. But there are steps to it. I wanted to be good in high school, good in college. As I progressed through the ranks, the NBA happened for me. I was blessed and fortunate to be able to use this platform to now become (a head) coach. When I really think about it, I’ve always had really good coaching, starting with my own (family), but also coaches in high school, college and the NBA. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here today. I’ve continued to be blessed by other people.”

Green’s five seasons as an assistant coach under Steve Kerr and Monty Williams were extraordinarily successful, with the Warriors and Suns making a combined four trips to the NBA Finals. Green won consecutive championships in 2017-18, then helped Phoenix make its first Finals appearance in 28 years in ’20-21. During his half-decade as an assistant, Green developed a coaching philosophy he will bring to New Orleans that has served him well, one that focuses on communicating and being able to relate to players.

“When I think about coaching, the best coaches are not (the one best at) X’s and O’s,” Green said. “The best coaches are the people who care about you, the best teachers. Connecting with players is no different than connecting with people. You realize really quickly that you have a lot more in common than you know. That’s sort of my take and my approach in basketball. I figure it’s easy to get (players) to reach their max, when they know you care about them. That’s (my) way of connecting with players.”

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