Green energy: After humbling fall, ex-dunk champ rises again in NBA
Journeyman Gerald Green is making the most of his opportunity with the Nets
The former first-round pick played in Russia, was cut in China, had NBADL stints
Green, a more diligent worker now, has five 20-point games off the Nets' bench
NEWARK, N.J. -- How do you know when you have hit bottom? When, after four failed stints in the NBA, two trips to the D-League and two seasons in obscure Russian outposts, a cellar-dwelling Chinese league team sends you packing.
For Gerald Green, things couldn't get much worse.
Green's career began in 2005, when Boston selected the uber-athletic swingman with the 18th pick in the draft. His early career was filled with a lot of style (Green won the 2007 dunk contest and finished second in '08) but little substance. After two seasons, the Celtics shipped him to Minnesota in the Kevin Garnett trade. From there, Green bounced from Minnesota to Houston to Dallas before playing himself out of the league after the 2008-09 season.
"In Boston, I thought the sky was the limit for me," Green said. "Then, suddenly, nobody wanted me."
Green went to Russia, where he spent two years playing for consonant-heavy teams in Krasnodar and Samara. It was basketball Siberia. No, really, Green played some of his road games in Siberia.
"That's a different kind of cold," Green said.
Last fall, Green ended up in Guangdong, a seaside province in southeast China. The Foshon Long Lions had called and, well, Green was running out of options. He dropped 41 points in a win over Shanghai and was averaging 26.5 points through the first four games. But then Green got a call in his hotel room from the team's general manager asking him to meet him in the lobby. Green thought he was getting a pat on the back. The GM handed him his walking papers.
"They told me I didn't fit into the team and that they were going in a different direction," Green said. "Honestly, that was probably the low point of my life."
Years earlier, that kind of disappointment might have broken him. Green was an immature kid when he was plucked out of Gulf Shores Academy in Houston in 2005, full of potential but without the slightest clue how to play the game. If this happened back then, Green might have sulked, pointed fingers and whined his way right out of basketball.
Instead, Green said nothing. He passed on more lucrative offers to return to Russia and flew to Los Angeles, where he latched on with the NBADL's D-Fenders. There, he became a student of the game. He worked on his defense. He worked on his ball handling. He played three positions for the D-Fenders and, according to coach Eric Musselman, mastered the roughly 110 sets for all three.
"Some guys come to the D-League and don't buy in," Musselman said. "Gerald had two feet in from Day 1."
There were some rocky moments early. In his second game, Green missed his first six shots. During a timeout, Musselman told him to stop shooting. Green insisted he could make them. He knocked down eight of his next 14 attempts and finished with 24 points.
"Pro players, sometimes they have their minds in fantasy land," Musselman said. "Gerald did a great job of evaluating his performance. When he played bad, he let the whole team know it was on him. He came in quiet but by the time he left, he was a vocal leader who had huge control over the locker room."
The Nets had been searching for small-forward help for months when they called Green, shuttling D-Leaguers Larry Owens and Andre Emmett in and out while looking for the right fit. Green scored 10 points in his New Jersey debut in Dallas on Feb. 28 and followed it up with an 11-point effort against Boston three nights later. He pumped in 26 points against Houston on March 10, the first of his five 20-point performances in 21 games with the Nets. The freakish athleticism is still there, but his game has been noticeably polished.
"I'm trying to play with my head and not my athleticism," Green said. "This league has a lot of athletes. I know I need to be more than that. I'm a lot smarter. Defensively, I've learned rotations better. I had to develop somewhere. My high school is closed down. I couldn't get tips from my college coaches because I didn't go to one. I've been trying to learn as much as I can but I have always been on the move, learning from four or five different teams."
Green, 26, is happy with the Nets and, more important, the Nets are happy with him. He is averaging 12 points (on 49.5 percent shooting) and 3.7 rebounds in 23.7 minutes off the bench. Coach Avery Johnson has praised Green's commitment to studying video. The team locked him up for the rest of the season last month, and there is a strong interest in bringing him back next year. After years as a basketball nomad, Green may have finally found a home.
"I thought I had lost everything," Green said. "Now I have another chance. It's a great feeling."