TrueHoop: Gerald Green

By John Krolik

Wesley Johnson's first summer league game did not feel like the professional debut of a top-five overall pick. The Thomas and Mack center was nearly empty, with only a few hundred people there to populate the full-sized home of the Running Rebels. The starting lineups were listlessly announced to little fanfare. The pregame song was the theme music from Space Jam. To put it plainly, nothing about the start of Wes Johnson's pro debut felt like the start of something big.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Wesley Johnson didn't dominate, but he showed off his skills.

When one watches Johnson play, it becomes clear why he doesn't have the kind of hype surrounding him that most top-five players do when they come into the league. Johnson is a perimeter player, but he doesn't seem to have the mentality of a go-to scorer. The Syracuse product only scored 16.5 points per game during his final year with the squad, and he wasn't looking to take over his first summer league game. After the contest, Johnson said that he's still "trying to find his spots" in an offense he's still trying to learn, and "wasn't going out there trying to over-exert himself."

Johnson was all but invisible during his first stint on the court for the Timberwolves, and his first basket of the game didn't come until he crashed the offensive boards for a tip-in. For most of the first half, Johnson waited around for a ball that wasn't coming to him. While Jeremy Pargo and Wayne Ellington were busy dominating the ball, missing 14 of their 20 field goal attempts, and committing a combined 10 turnovers, the No. 4 overall pick waited patiently for his turn to get a shot or make a play. The sparse crowd in the Thomas and Mack Center didn't come expecting to see a show, and Johnson wasn't looking to provide one.

Johnson didn't dominate the game by any stretch of the imagination. But he also didn't waste possessions, which is a bad habit most summer-league guards and wings have a hard time kicking. When Johnson did get a chance to make a play, it became apparent why the Wolves think he was worthy of a top-five pick. There was the time Johnson came off a pick and smoothly drained a 33. Then there was the moment in the second half where Johnson made a perfect cut, caught a Patrick O'Bryant bounce pass without breaking stride, and easily dropped in an and-1. Then there was the resounding tip-slam that drew audible gasps and finally got the stadium buzzing, even after the dunk was disallowed.

Johnson isn't a No. 1 option, but he has every skill you could ask for in a wing player. He's a smooth but explosive athlete, and can get to the basket with one or two long steps. He calls himself a slasher, but he can punish teams if they leave him open from beyond the arc. With his athleticism, length, and defensive instincts, Johnson will be a plus defender from day one; the Spurs' Alonzo Gee was the first NBA player to get shut down by Johnson in the half-court, but he won't be the last.

Johnson is the rare summer league player who will look better playing with and against the best players in the world rather than trying to dominate the rookies and fringe prospects that populate NBA Summer League rosters. When Johnson's teammates start looking for him and setting him up with opportunities to finish plays, he'll shine as an offensive player while making an impact on the defensive end. Johnson probably won't be a superstar in the NBA, but he has a very good chance of being an above-average starter in this league for a very long time. Teams can, and have, done much worse things with a top-five pick.
  • There's a lot to like about Knicks second-round draft pick Landry Fields. Fields isn't the most athletic guy in the world, but he uses every ounce of athleticism he has. He knows where the ball is going to be, wants to make plays, and does a great job using his body to keep defenders at bay when he puts the ball on the floor or goes up for a layup. There's no telling whether or not Fields' tricks will work against NBA defenders, but he certainly looked good today.
  • Devin Ebanks knows how to set himself up for his jump shot -- his footwork is good, he's usually squared up when he shoots, and he can get his shot off from a variety of spots on the floor. At one point, Ebanks turned down a 3, took two hard dribbles, and pulled up for an easy mid-range jumper. It's surprising how few slashers have that move in their bag. The problem with Ebanks is that he's much better at setting up his jumper than he is at making it. Ebanks flicks his shot up there, and his release leaves a lot to be desired. If Ebanks can fix some of the mechanical issues with his jumper, he could become a surprisingly complete offensive player.
  • Derrick Caracter played an extremely sloppy game, and ended up committed eight turnovers and eight fouls. On the other hand, his ability to finish in traffic continues to be impressive.
  • Toney Douglas had a sloppy game as well, and he spent more time forcing shots than trying to be a real point guard. Maybe he's trying to prepare himself for his new role as a bench scorer, which the Raymond Felton acquisition will almost certainly relegate him to.
  • Gerald Green had one stretch where he made a smart swing pass, hit an open 3 and swished a tough pull-up jumper. For a second, everyone in the arena wondered why somebody that talented didn't make it in the NBA. Then Green got picked clean in transition and got stripped going to the basket on consecutive possessions.
  • Alonzo Gee looked amazing in full-court situations. He's a great rebounder for a guard, can start the break after grabbing a rebound, is a wonderful passer on the break, and is more than capable of finishing the break with a resounding slam. In the half-court, Gee was completely shut down by Wes Johnson, who might be the best perimeter defender I've seen at Summer League thus far.
  • Patrick O'Bryant has bounced around the league since he was a top-1o pick, but he looked like a serviceable pro on Monday. He's still a legit 7-footer, showed some nice touch around the basket, made a nice low-post seal and bucket at one point, and was telling his teammates where to be on defense. He'll never live up to his top-10 billing, but there could be a spot for him on the end of somebody's bench.
  • Dwayne Mitchell turned some heads when he scored 12 points in 12.5 minutes against the Wolves without missing a shot, with five of those points coming on a 3 3and a resounding alley-oop dunk.
  • Rob Mahoney on Donté Greene: "It's entirely possible that Donté Greene was put on this planet purely to thrive in Summer League games. His ball-handling skills and decision-making aren't exposed against the inferior competition, and he essentially has license to fire at will. As a result, Greene reveals the flashes that made him such an intriguing prospect coming out of Syracuse. Yet that's part of the problem. Greene is so athletic and so talented for a 6-foot-11 player, but he's more or less the same talent he was a year ago or the year before that. Donté manages to catch lightning in a bottle in Vegas, but in the big leagues? He still has a fair way to go."
  • Rodrigue Beaubois is really trying to add a more consistent jumper to his game, and has turned down some opportunities to drive in order to set up that jumper. The results have been mixed in Summer League, but he'll be scary if he can add that dimension to his game.
  • Harvard graduate Jeremy Lin might be the most fearless driver in Summer League. He goes straight to the rim, and isn't afraid to take contact when he does. His and-1 while being taken down by Larry Sanders was one of the best plays of the week.
  • Jeremy Schmidt on Jeff Teague: "He was the name many Hawks fans were calling for last season when Mike Bibby was showing his age. Teague gave a sampling of what he's able to do on Monday night. The Hawks second year point guard took advantage of Memphis' lack of a true point guard and was able to use his terrific quickness to repeatedly beat them off the dribble. Teague shot 5-7 from the free throw line, often drawing contact in the lane after getting by his first man. Teague controlled the game better than his three assists and four turnovers would indicate and, even with O.J. Mayo out there, often looked like the best player on the floor. Hawks fans will surely hope to see more of him next season.
  • Michael Schwartz on Scottie Reynolds: "The Suns were not sure if Reynolds was supposed to play at all because of a strained Achilles he suffered last week, but Reynolds surprised even his coach Dan Majerle by coming in ready to play today. He then sparked the Suns with 16 points in 19 minutes in their 96-88 win over D-League Select. Reynolds led Phoenix at a Suns-like pace by pushing the ball up the court and his shooting touch was on target in a 4-for-6 outing that that included a pair of 3s. 'He brought a lot of spark pushing the ball,' Majerle said. 'It was good to see.'"
  • Nick Young looks like a new man when he can take catch-and-shoot 3s off of John Wall passes. Between Young and JaVale McGee, Wall is already showing his ability to make his new teammates better.
  • John Wall isn't just a leaper, he goes to the basket with force, and he can finish after taking a hit. Eric Bledsoe bounced off of Wall before he converted an and-1 in transition. Something else to feel good about: Wall looked much happier after throwing a successfully converted alley-oop pass than he did after making the aforementioned and-1.

New Orleans East

February, 15, 2008

I spent almost all day in New Orleans East.

This is not a glamorous part of New Orleans. Do you remember when, after Katrina, there were some plans publicized to turn some residential areas into park land? Some of that talk was about this part of the city.

This morning we drove to a church out on Lake Forest Boulevard that is more or less surrounded by ruined houses. The Apostolic Outreach Center, led by Pastor Raymond R. Watson Jr., is still in the process of being rebuilt itself. This church is in a neighborhood where getting a FEMA Trailer Park on the back lot was considered an upgrade. Many of the houses we saw driving around were entirely abandoned.

But the church was hopping today. The likes of Elgin Baylor, Bo Kimble, Jonathan Bender, Moses Malone, Robert Pack, ML Carr, and others were there with team t-shirts on, distributing groceries to those who came by looking for them.

The groceries were donated by Fairway. You have never seen so many Terra Chips in your life.

A lot of what happened there was caught on camera, and we'll be showing you some of that. But a few things that you probably won't see:

  • Jonathan Bender, from nearby Picayune, is doing well even after his NBA career was cut short. He is making a full-time job out of Hurricane Katrina recovery in this area. Christmas present programs, helping a school refurbish their moldy library, reading stories to kids, running free basketball camps ... he's putting his time and his treasure to work for this region. Bender has been buying damaged properties, hiring contractors to fix them up, and then renting them out. It's amazing how uplifting it is to see houses getting fixed up on blocks where everything is abandoned. He invited us on a trip to see some of his nearby projects, but time was tight. We might get to see it anyway, however -- Bender recently hired a production company to make a pilot of a reality show about such things called Brand New Orleans.
  • Aaron James played for the New Orleans Jazz during their five years here. Elgin Baylor was his coach. Before practice, he says, they would play half-court. We're talking about hundreds, if not thousands of games through the years. During that time, James was never once on a team that beat Baylor. "I call him 'the great,'" says James, "because he is great at everything he does." (Insert joke here about Clipper personnel decisions through the years.)
  • Remember the great Bo Kimble? He has a full career for himself after basketball -- investing in real estate and all kinds of things. But he says he's good to go -- ready to return to the NBA. He's playing recreationally three times a week, and says his jumper is better than ever. He joked about talking to Elgin Baylor about a job with the Clippers, whom, he points out, "could use a little scoring. At least, I thought he was joking. Then later, I actually saw him talking to Elgin Baylor in a fairly serious fashion.

Swinging Hammers with NBA Players 
Early this afternoon I was "embedded" with Chris Duhon as he went about helping to build houses in East New Orleas for Habitat for Humanity. (You have have seen NBA TV this morning broadcasting live from a wet and muddy homebuilding site. That's where we went.)

The first step was meeting up with the players in the Sheraton lobby. Then we got on a bus to the work site. As one of a handful of "embedded" journalists, I got to ride on the player bus, instead of the media bus.

Didn't seem like that big of a deal. I plopped down in the back, and then Duhon sat down across the aisle. Paul Pierce sat in front of him, Kobe Bryant in front of him, Doc Rivers was there, Amare Stoudemire, Gerald Green, Morris Peterson ... All the other journalists were in the front. But I was back there feeling small.

It occured to me that this was probably the kind of experience you could get a lot of money for at a charity auction. I was there probably close to an hour over the whole round-trip.

Topics of conversation covered included:

  • Debate about whether or not Gerald Green had a chance against Jamario Moon in the dunk contest. Green said that if he lost, it would be because he beat himself. Pierce said a lot of things, but one of them was that if Green could pass the ball between his legs twice on one jump, then Pierce would retire from basketball. Pierce also offered to jump off a second-floor balcony we passed by. I swear I have seen this dunk by somebody on YouTube. But Green sure wasn't suggesting he could do it.
  • To put it mildly, these players seemed to think the Lakers got the good end of the Pau Gasol deal. Gasol, it is interesting to note, never seemed to get such remarkable reviews when he played for Memphis. But now that he's a Laker, no one can stop singing his praises. Context is everything. 
  • Kobe Bryant has a big ol' Darth Vader style brace protecting that pinkie.
  • Several players remembered playing against Jeff Hornacek, and remembered, with a certain admiration, that they hated playing against him. He is credited with having been a certain kind of old school tough and physical that isn't allowed anymore. He was also, they say, pretty darned sneaky, especially in how and when he'd slip to the hoop.

Then we got to the building site. It was raining pretty hard, so some of the superstars (cough, Amare, cough) found jobs inside. But Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, Chris Duhon, Gerald Green, and Morris Peterson worked outside. Kobe Bryant did too, but he made the rounds, visiting various pretty much all of the workers all over the site. He assigned himself the task of getting the lumber in the proper place, as he really could not swing a hammer with that pinkie like it is. I'll say here, that Kobe was great in this role -- with a lot of people moving all over, he was really able to quickly figure out what had to be done and how he could be most helpful. 

It was my first time on a Habitat for Humanity site, and it was amazingly cool. They have the wood all marked, the tools all in place, so pretty much anyone who can swing a hammer can quickly assemble an entire interior wall. With so much prep work already done, and many hands, it's incredibly satisfying to be able to construct big things like houses really quickly.

I worked with the players. It was a little weird -- most of the media just watched. And there was a lot of media there. But man, the NBA invited us to help rebuild New Orleans! Highlight of my trip! I wanted to pound some nails, and feel like I had at least done a little something. (So there are probably a lot of photos out there of famous NBA people and some random bald blogger. But whatever.)

It was also a chance to do something physical, which is always welcome on business trips. And I can pound some nails! I have done such things before, and I was ready, unlike some NBA players. Doc Rivers -- he can pound nails. I think Pierce was pretty good. I'm not vouching for anybody else, but we did get three or four interior walls constructed in something like 40 minutes.

Once I got a rhythm going, I was humming along. Didn't bend nails, didn't miss and hit my finger. Didn't split the wood. It was all good.

But then, towards the end of our short time on the job, I put a nail closer to a knot than I probably should have. It was a little bit of a cocky move. I pounded it pretty hard too, before the nail started to buckle. There were big framing nails, too wide to power through this knot. It was my first nailing error of the day. I turned the hammer around and started to yank it out. 

Then here comes Gerald Green. "Need some help with that?" He said it with just the slightest suggestion that maybe this was a job for a professional. 

I had found that the nail wasn't budging at all, and was only too happy to stand back and let Green crank on it -- especially as 2 x 4 it was pounded into wasn't affixed to anything, so good leverage was hard to come

The man they call G. Green yanked and pulled and grunted for some time. Eventually, the Habitat guy in charge of the project came over and saw that Green's bad nail was the holdup. "Want me to get that?"

Green was only too happy to join me on the sidelines. Kobe Bryant came over to watch, too, as had several TV cameras and photographers. The pro was about to go to work.

He had technique, and power. He used kind of a repeated jackrabbit type yank yank yank but the thing was not moving. "Man," he exclaimed to Gerald, "what'd you do to get that thing in there?"

Decision time. Gerald was getting credited with this work -- was it good work (hard hammering!) or bad work (dumb spot!)? I didn't know. I leaned towards good. And decided not to steal Gerald's thunder, especially when I knew those TV cameras had already had enough of me.

Yank yank yank the guy just kept tearing at it. He cranked and cranked on it, and wondered how the hell G. Green got that nail in there like that.

Then: the whole hammer busted right in half, straight through the handle, just below the head. Nail: still in place. Hammer: done.

I was proud I had been the one that got that nail in there like that. But I let Gerald soak in that pride. My pride. Like Gerald broke the hammer.

I handed the Habitat guy my hammer, which had a metal, instead of a wooden handle. He finished pulling out the nail in silence as the rain fell.

And then Kobe said to Green, of me: Whoa, man. That's cold. He didn't say a word.

Kobe couldn't believe I didn't 'fess up to the tough nail. G. Green got into the act too, ribbing me about that, playing mock victim.

Finally, I say it's cool: I'll take credit for it. But the Habitat guy is gone. And so are the TV cameras. It's too late. The world thinks that Gerald did that. I hereby formally admit: this evening New Orleans East is one hammer down, and it's all my fault.

That's what the defending champion Green tells (Via Timberwolves Today.)

So far, that's Jamario Moon and Gerald Green. I think we really do have to have Dwight Howard, too, right? Is there any chance he's not invited after all the talk about his preparations to get revenge for last year's sticker-dunk misunderstanding?

The way I see it, there's pressure on who gets that fourth spot. It's always fun for the kids to see a mini-dunker like Nate Robinson. But on the other hand, this is the event to introduce new blood, and you can't introduce new blood when 75% of the contestants have been there before.

Who should it be? If you're making your case in the comments, include a link to some video.