Heart of a Lion
The Path to Becoming Defensive Player of the Year
by Brian Witt
An undersized, overlooked big man overcomes his supposed physical shortcomings to become an All-Star, NBA Champion and one of the most dominant defensive players of his era.
If you happened to catch the Warriors' preseason opener this past weekend, then it most definitely should.
Prior to tipoff of that preseason clash against the Denver Nuggets, Golden State forward Draymond Green was presented with the 2017 Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award for his stalwart defensive performance throughout the Warriors' 2017 championship season. Green knew the trophy was coming. He did not, however, know who would be presenting him with it.
As the players got in their final stretches, Green received a tap on the shoulder from television play-by-play broadcaster Bob Fitzgerald, who promptly redirected Green's attention to center court. Standing there, as staunch and intimidating as ever, was four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace with trophy in hand. Now, you can imagine that this would be a special moment for any player, to be recognized as the top defensive player in the entire league in front of their home crowd. But this particular presentation held distinct and tangible meaning, due to the relationship between the two men involved.
"Man, that was dope," Green said following the game. "[Warriors Vice President of Public Relations] Raymond Ridder had been telling me for like a week, 'I've got a surprise for you' and I go 'when is the surprise?' He said, 'I can't really tell you when the surprise is but I've got a surprise for you.' Fitz [Bob Fitzgerald] told me today, he's like, 'hey, it's a surprise for you' and he pointed to mid-court when I was stretching pregame, and I looked, alright, that was a good one. That was great. I mean, that's the guy I looked up to growing up."
There is perhaps no one in the history of the sport more aptly suited to bestow the honor of the Defensive Player of the Year trophy than Ben Wallace. After all, he and Dikembe Mutombo are the only players in NBA history to win the award a record four times. Wallace was also a four-time All-Star and a five-time First Team All-Defensive selection in his time with the Detroit Pistons. But those aren't the highlights of the decorated career of a top draft pick, destined to dominate the sport from the start. In fact, Wallace went undrafted out of Virginia Union University, and only arrived in Detroit after spending the first four seasons of his career with the Washington Bullets and Orlando Magic. His 1,088 career games played are the most ever by an undrafted player in NBA history.
Listed at 6'9", Wallace was an undersized center, back before going small was all the rage. And yet, through intense physicality and unbridled tenacity, he evolved into one of the most dominant defenders of the modern era, a sight not lost on a local kid from nearby Saginaw, just over 70 miles north of the Palace of Auburn Hills.
In the early 2000's, Draymond Green joined an AAU team in Detroit, where he grew close with teammate Jordan Dumars, the son of Pistons' Hall-of-Fame guard Joe Dumars. The Dumars' soon took Green to his second-ever Pistons game, where he was able to not only meet Wallace, but also study how and why he was "one of the most feared players to grace the court at that time in the NBA."
"Ben had an incredible work ethic," Green recalled. "Not only did he work out extremely hard every day, but more importantly, he had the heart of a lion. It was amazing because he didn't say much, but everyone knew that he meant business."
Fast-forward a handful of years to the end of Green's senior season at Michigan State. A four-year player who was a consensus All-American and had led his team to two Final Fours sat through the entire first round of the NBA Draft without hearing his name called (To this day, Green can still name every player drafted ahead of him). Five picks into the second round, however, Green was selected by the Warriors, launching him along a path that would eventually allow him to follow in Wallace's footsteps.
From Green's first season to his second, he increased his steals and blocks per game by 140 and 200 percent, respectively. Then, an injury to David Lee at the start of the 2014-15 season created a void in the starting lineup, which first-year Head Coach Steve Kerr turned to Green to fill. The rest, as they say, is history.
Golden State would go on to win their first of two NBA Championships in a three-year span that season, a stretch over which Green has started every game he's appeared in. Throughout that time, Green has established and fortified his status as one of the best defenders on the planet.
In both 2014-15 and 2015-16, Green finished second to San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard in Defensive Player of the Year voting. This past season, however, the third time was the charm. The 6'7" forward was named the 2016-17 Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year after averaging 1.38 blocks and a league-best 2.03 steals per game. He also recorded the first triple-double in league history that didn't include points, and made several key defensive stops in the final moments of numerous close games.
So when it came time to present Green with the trophy, Ridder orchestrated a surprise that would ensure the presentation held as much meaning as possible. Who better to present the trophy to Green than the man who paved the way for him?
"I got the call to come out here to present him with that trophy," Wallace said on the television broadcast. "I was excited to come out here, especially to have the opportunity to surprise him."
"I met Draymond when he was about nine years old, and we talked about basketball," he continued. "It's just making me feel good just knowing that he actually listened and he applied everything I talked about to basketball. It's good to see him out there having a lot of success."
On January 16, 2016, Wallace had his jersey retired at halftime of a Pistons game, and as fate would have it, the Warriors were Detroit's opponent that night. Green sought to take advantage of the serendipitous nature of the evening by writing an open letter to thank the man he deemed to be at least somewhat responsible for his ascension from a self-described youngster with a "huge afro" to, now, the reigning Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
"Thank you, Mr. Wallace," Green said in closing that letter, "for showing me that it is possible to make it to the NBA and wreak havoc while being undersized! Hopefully, there is a kid watching me and wondering the same things I did about you, realizing that man does not have the ability to judge what's in another man's heart!
This past weekend, Wallace had his chance to return the sentiment when mentor and mentee embraced at center court for the trophy presentation. The meaning of the moment was not lost Draymond.
"It was a special moment. I watched them for years," Green said following the game. "To be back when his jersey got retired was special. And to be able to share that moment with him, for him to hand me that trophy, that meant a lot to me."
As the Warriors embark on a season they hope will culminate in another championship, Green, too, will have the opportunity to defend his individual title. Perhaps he'll go back-to-back. Perhaps he'll go on to win three more and match Wallace in the NBA record books. And maybe, just maybe, there is another undersized, overlooked youngster with the heart of a lion out there right now, whom Green will be waiting for at center court one day.