Willie Green directs the Pelicans during preseason

Willie Green’s message to Pelicans: Capitalize on every opportunity

The 12-year NBA player makes debut as head coach Wednesday vs. 76ers

The longevity of an NBA player’s career is often based on a variety of factors. Talent is an obvious requirement. Health and durability are necessities. Finding the right team and quickly figuring out how one’s strengths can best help that club win games? Invaluable.

There are countless other factors that can make the difference between having say, a three-year career, or lasting double-digit seasons in the NBA. Are you a good teammate? Can coaches rely on you, whether that’s always being on time, or always knowing the playbook and your assignments on the hardwood?

First-year New Orleans head coach Willie Green was undoubtedly a talented player when he entered the NBA in 2003, but among the many reasons the second-round draft pick’s career stretched all the way to 2015 were an array of intangibles. Even as a 29-year-old during his one season in New Orleans (2010-11), his Hornets teammates treated him with the kind of respect normally reserved for a player much older. After he played his final pro season for Orlando and logged the last of nearly 15,000 career NBA minutes, Green was immediately in demand as a player development coach with a potentially bright future.

Primarily a shooting guard, Green was an underrated athlete who could surprise fans by throwing down a dunk on a 7-footer’s head, or erupt for a big scoring night off the bench (as he did in an April 2011 game vs. Phoenix, when he poured in 31 points in 31 minutes for New Orleans). But those weren’t necessarily the main reasons he earned an NBA pension and appeared in 70-plus games in six different seasons. Green immediately established himself as a steady, dependable role player who minimized the errors he made on the court, making him the kind of contributor who helped his coaches get a good night’s sleep.

“That’s very much so the player he was,” said Pelicans guard Garrett Temple, who often matched up vs. Green head-to-head over a five-year span. “(He was a) very strong, defensive guard who really excelled at shooting the mid-range shot and the corner three. He never made mistakes on offense and always guarded very, very hard. He was always guarding the best player. So there was definitely a level of respect for him.”

Some of the admirable traits that made Green a long-tenured NBA player were among the ones that led the Pelicans to pursue him this offseason as their head coach, after Green’s teams experienced vast success while he was an assistant for Golden State and Phoenix. Just six years after he hung up his sneakers, he’s ascended to the top of the coaching field.

“First of all, he’s a phenomenal human being,” Pelicans GM Trajan Langdon said of Green. “It’s important to him to understand what’s going on (in the lives of) the people he’s surrounded with and he has a lot of empathy. A lot of emotional intelligence goes into what he does, in terms of thinking about his staff, the players. He’s been in their shoes at different parts of his own career, whether it was being a rookie in his first contract, playing for a difficult coach, playing for a player’s coach. He’s seen everything in this league as a player.

“As an assistant coach, he’s been to four Finals and dealt with some really good teams and high-level, Hall of Fame players. So he’s seen everything. We felt he’d be able to relate to the players at any stage of their careers, but also how to handle and manage a team and individuals. We’re incredibly excited to have him, and I think he’s a great fit for all of those reasons.”

As the Pelicans prepared to open 2021-22 on Wednesday vs. Philadelphia in Green’s official head-coaching debut, players echoed Langdon’s assessment, giving glowing reviews of the new sideline leader.

“It’s been all positive,” guard Tomas Satoransky said of the initial experience. “He seems like a player’s coach who really listens to his players and lets them decide on the court (what to do) and have freedom. It’s great to have a group of guys who have that kind of confidence from their head coach.”

“Great demeanor for an NBA head coach in this day and age, in my opinion,” Temple said. “Very poised, very calm. He’s serious, but not too serious. He can command a room and has a presence about him that you need, but he’s also very easy to talk to, which is something you also need.”

“I’m excited about the opportunity to lead,” Green said. “For me leadership is more about serving, serving others, serving your players, your coaching staff. We want to attack it in that way. I’m excited to get back on the basketball floor and see the guys play at a high level.”

“He does a great job creating an atmosphere that players want to play in,” Langdon said.

Green and the Pelicans have a tangible goal of qualifying for the Western Conference playoffs in April, but along the way, the 40-year-old will deliver a reoccurring message to his players – many of whom are still trying to establish themselves as pros – about capitalizing on every practice and game. It’s a philosophy that helped the No. 41 overall pick of the 2003 draft stick in the league for a dozen years.

“With almost anyone (successful) in the NBA, you’ve got to work your way through it and you’ve got to grind, but especially with guys who are second-round picks or undrafted, you can’t take a day off or a second off,” Langdon said, alluding to Green overcoming his draft slot as a player. “You can’t take anything for granted. Over the course of his 12-year career, he never did.

“He’s very appreciative of this opportunity, and he’s going to continue to preach that to every player on our team. You need to appreciate this opportunity every day. It is not a given. You have to really take advantage of it and make the most of it as an individual and as a team. He and his staff talk about that every day. Those things resonate with young players.”

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