The Persistence of Danny Green
By: Lorne Chan Spurs.com
Danny Green sat on his parents’ couch, unemployed for a month and watching the NBA’s Christmas Day showcase.
It was 2010, and his former teammate LeBron James was leading the Heat against the Lakers. Meanwhile, Green had been cut by two teams in two months.
He tried to stay positive for the holidays. But Christmas and basketball practice were intertwined to Green, and this was his first holiday without a team.
He wondered if his NBA days were over after just 124 total minutes on the court.
There was a team in Italy with a contract offer for a lot more money than what he was making on the couch as well. All he had to do was give up on his NBA dream for the rest of the season, maybe longer, and it hadn’t worked out with Cleveland or San Antonio anyway.
That thought, he said, was what self-doubt felt like.
“The road, the path, the roller coaster that it took to get here, I don’t take anything for granted,” he says, five years later. “It’s so much sweeter now that I’m living this dream. I just hope I don’t wake up.”
Green passed on Italy on the urging of his family, who spent the holidays telling him that he could make it in the NBA.
He chose Reno, Nevada, and the NBA D-League instead, and got to work.
From the D-League to starting for an NBA champion, Green’s journey continued on Tuesday when he re-signed with the Spurs.
“Who would’ve thought this guy would make it?” Green asked on Instagram after he agreed to the extension, posting photos of himself playing for the Reno BigHorns of the D-League and the Slovenian pro team Union Olimpija.
He made it through persistence and hard work, earning the admiration of many along the way.
Green, a 6-foot-6 guard, has become a top defender for the Spurs and a clutch 3-point shooter, setting the Spurs’ single-season franchise record for threes with 191 in 2014-15.
Long-range shooting has become such a crucial part of the NBA that 94 players made 35 percent of their 3-point attempts last season. Games can be decided on the difference between a 35 percent and 40 percent shooter though, and only 22 players made 40 percent of their treys.
Throw in frequency and consistency, and Green is in elite company.
Three players have made at least 100 three-pointers on 40 percent shooting for the past four seasons – Green, Kyle Korver and Klay Thompson.
Green has made 42.0 percent of his 3-point attempts in his career, the NBA’s 12th-best percentage of all-time.
For him to get there, it took a few detours.
“You’re going to have doubts when you get cut,” Green said. “But you can use those moment to light a fire under yourself.”
Green arrived in Cleveland as the Cavaliers’ second round pick (No. 46 overall) in the 2009 NBA Draft. He capped his senior year at North Carolina by helping lead the Tar Heels to a national championship, and Green admitted that he felt pretty comfortable.
At UNC, the team relied on him to be a well-rounded player, doing a little bit of everything. He is the only player in Tar Heel history with 100 blocked shots (155) and 100 three-point field goals (184).
While that worked in college, it didn’t necessarily translate to the NBA.
He was labeled for a lack of any distinguishing traits. Good at many things, coaches said, but not great at anything.
“You saw there was the potential, but nothing was standing out,” said Mike Brown, Cleveland’s coach at the time. “He didn’t have anything that was mentioned on another team’s scouting report.”
Green played in 20 games his rookie season, only two of which were Cleveland wins by fewer than 10 points. Most of the playing time came in Cavs blowouts, and he got more attention on Sportscenter for dancing with LeBron on the bench than any plays.
Days before the 2010 season began, the Cavs waived Green to make room on the roster for an unsigned training camp invite, Manny Harris.
The Spurs picked up Green in November 2010, only to cut him six days later.
The NBA can be cruel that way. Being one of the 500 best basketball players in the world isn’t necessarily good enough.
“I was supposed to go to Italy,” Green said. “My family talked me out of it. They told me I was an NBA player. And I’d watch NBA games and see guys I’d played alongside and some guys I’d beaten.
“I knew I belonged. But I had to earn it again.”
Green signed with the Reno Bighorns of the D-League in January 2011, with a resolve to claw back to the NBA.
It was a risk. The D-League wasn’t as established back then, and he was turning down a steady paycheck overseas for road trips to Idaho and Bakersfield. But Green had a new understanding of what it would take to last in the NBA.
When the Spurs cut Green, coach Gregg Popovich called UNC coach Roy Williams. The Spurs liked Green, he said, but Green still had work to do to carve his own place on a roster.
“We both gave Danny a great deal of criticism,” Williams said. “A lot of younger players could have pointed the finger, but he accepted it and worked on getting another chance.”
Green was a “glue guy” for Williams’ national championship team, someone who could grab offensive rebounds, stuff a quick player and use his athleticism to have a part in everything. His most famous play at UNC was a dunk over Duke guard Greg Paulus.
That wasn’t going to work in the elevated talent pool of the NBA though, and Green found out as a rookie. To evolve, he got to work on being a defensive stopper and deadly shooter.
“I had to learn that I’m not that special,” Green said. “I may be talented, but I’m not the most talented in the world. And some of the most talented players don’t even make it. I had to have a higher IQ and outwork everyone, or I wasn’t going to make it back.”
For Green, outworking everyone meant going back to the fundamentals.
He remembered his first practices at St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset, New York, where coach Tim Cluess’ workouts were exhaustive exercises in running and gunning.
All of Cluess’ practices were high-energy and meant to be conducted at game speed.
“We wore you down, and Danny struggled in his first few weeks,” Cluess said. “He was not a natural shooter, so everything took time and effort. And for the last two years, he never lost a competition in practice. Running, shooting, anything.”
Cluess mentioned a coaching philosophy that it takes about 18,000 to 20,000 repetitions of an action for it to become second nature. For a typical high school player taking 100 shots a day, a process could take six months to master and bad habits may form along the way.
Danny Green, Cluess said, was taking 1,000 shots a day.
“Practicing has to be kind of like a religion with the amount of time you put into it,” Cluess said. “Danny put in the work to get to a point where a 3-point shot feels as natural as a layup.”
Cluess is a Division I college coach now at Iona College.
Iona made 344 three-pointers last season, tied for most in the nation.
“I’ve played for so many great coaches,” Green said. “Pop, Roy, they’re legends. But Coach Cluess was the one who first instilled that work ethic.”
Green was a good 3-point shooter, but by no means was he a great one. In four years at UNC, Green made 37.5 percent of his 3-pointers (184 of 491). It was a shorter 3-point line in college and he had easier looks against college defenders.
To improve his 3-point shot in Reno, Green began going to the gym two to three hours before practice.
“There were days where it would be 90 minutes before practice and he’d be absolutely drenched with sweat,” said Eric Musselman, Reno’s coach in 2010-11. “He spent and enormous amount of time pre-and-post practice shooting the three ball. He was single minded. He wasn’t going to do anything other than getting back to the league.”
Green’s routine in Reno was simple. Shoot, practice, shoot some more, get ice from the gas station next to the hotel, sleep, do it all again the next day.
It helped that Green had two teammates in Reno with the same focus, another sharpshooter in Steve Novak and point guard Jeremy Lin.
Green spent 49 days with Reno. He averaged 20.1 points -- shooting 43% from three-point range and making 2.3 treys per game, in 16 games.
“His confidence grew every day there,” Musselman said. “A lot of guys in the D-League are trying to find their niche. It’s about opportunity and finding the right system.”
In mid-March, the Spurs signed him again.
Green spent the rest of 2010-11 with the Spurs and played in six games, but his place on the roster was far from a lock.
There was another impending roadblock as well, the 2011 lockout. The option to play in Europe versus sitting on the couch suddenly reappeared.
Green considered an offer from a team in Greece, but decided against it because there wasn’t a clause to return to the NBA if the lockout ended. He chose a team in Slovenia instead that gave him the clause, and worked with a return to the Spurs in mind.
“There are players who expect teams to build around them, but great players can see what their team needs and fill those roles,” Roy Williams said. “He just continued to evolve.”
There’s a classic method for teaching 3-point fundamentals called BEEF, an acronym for Balance, Eyes, Elbow and Follow-Through. Get those four pieces down and shots will be pure.
For Green, honing his long-range shot meant perfecting his balance.
When the lockout ended, Green began working constantly with Spurs assistant Chad Forcier on his footwork and balance.
They practiced shots while running to spots from every possible angle, hundreds of times each practice. They worked on balance more than most gymnasts, and studied balance the way accountants study balance sheets.
“There are a lot of nuances of shooting that go unnoticed to the naked eye,” Forcier said. “Danny spent so much time on the subtleties in shooting, understanding the repetition and fundamentals so he’d be ready in pressure-packed moments against the very best defenses.”
The preparation improved his quick release, his speed in getting his feet set and allows him to keep balance even in the most awkward of shots, whether it’s from tiptoes or while falling backward.
Most of Green’s points come from catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, as he must be constantly at the ready for an open pass. In 2014-15, more than 85 percent of his 3-pointers were of the catch-and-shoot variety.
“There isn’t a shot Danny has made in a game that he hasn’t spent hours repeating over and over in practice, getting sore and getting tired,” Forcier said. “Danny has earned everything he’s gotten.”
In his first two seasons in the NBA, Green made 13 of 41 three-point attempts (31.7 percent). He often entered games late and 41 shots in two seasons is hardly a sample size, but it gave little indication of his breakout season in 2011-12.
Green made 102 of 234 from behind the arc, a 43.6 percent clip in 2011-12. The Spurs had six players shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point range that season, and Green had the best accuracy of them all. He averaged 9.1 points and finished ninth in voting for the league’s most improved player.
Twenty-seven games into the season, Green was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time. He has since made 256 more starts.
These days, he is on every opponent’s scouting report.
“I think about getting my own ice from the gas station in the D-League or practicing twice a day overseas not knowing if we’d be getting a paycheck,” Green said. “I think about being cut twice or being the last man on the bench. But even now, I know there’s always someone as hungry as I was who’s trying to take my spot.”
Green re-signed with the Spurs for the 2012-13 season and continued to establish himself as one of the league’s top 3-point shooters. He hit 177 treys in the regular season, eighth in the NBA.
Then came the playoffs, the 2013 NBA Finals against the Heat, and one of the best series shooting performances of all-time.
Green went 5-of-5 behind the arc in Game 2. It turned out he was just setting up a Game 3 performance, where he made 7-of-9 3-pointers and the Spurs set an NBA Finals record with 16 3-pointers.
By Game 5, Green had broken the NBA Finals record for three-pointers in a series. He finished the seven-game series having made 27 of 49 3-pointers, or 55.1 percent.
"He’s done all of the work and he deserves all the success that he has," Forcier said. "He really made more of a commitment to the fundamentals of shooting than anyone I can think of, and it paid off."
Green averaged 9.1 points per game in 2013-14 as the Spurs won the NBA title. He made 48 of 101 treys in the playoffs, 47.5 percent. Green also became the third UNC player to win both an NCAA title and NBA title, joining James Worthy and Michael Jordan.
His role on the Spurs continued to increase in 2014-15 as he led the team in minutes played. He averaged career highs of 11.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists, and his Spurs’ regular-season record for 3-pointers in a season of 191 passed Chuck Person's 19-year-old team record of 190. Green's defensive rating of 100.5 was also 16th best in the NBA, according to Basketball Reference.
With his multi-year contract extension, Green's journey continues as a Spur.
“I’m a prime example that you don’t have to be the greatest, the most athletic or the tallest,” Green said. “Just work at it and something will come. You might not land on the moon every time, but you can get pretty close. And that won’t be a bad place either.”