Draymond Green walks the walk

Here is my Tuesday column on Draymond Green. WARNING: This is a Warriors column. 49ers fans — feel free to skip this.

OAKLAND – Tom Izzo told Draymond Green to shut up.

This happened in a meeting halfway through Green’s freshman season at Michigan State. Legendary head coach Tom Izzo had asked his basketball team a question, and he wasn’t asking Green.

“Coach Izzo would direct his questions to the older guys, the guys who had been there,” said Green the other day after a Warriors practice, “and tell the freshman not to say anything. I wasn’t hardheaded, but I knew I had some things I could say that would help the team.

“So when we were in a meeting one day, he asked a question and I answered it. He gave me the craziest look and then walked away. And then he looked back at me. And then he walked away again. And he then looked at me again.”

Green ducked his head, turned it to the side and squinted, giving the buffalo eye, the face Izzo made.

“I guess Coach Izzo didn’t expect it out of a freshman. He said, ‘Shut up, you’re a punk freshman.’ But the rest of that meeting – this was a long meeting – he directed his questions to me.”

Still a freshman bench player, Green became a leader of a premier college basketball program. He graduated four years later as Michigan State’s all-time leading rebounder. He was the Big Ten Player of the Year his senior season, and one of three players ever to record two triple-doubles in the NCAA tournament.

Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson were the other two.

Green was not a first-round draft pick – not tall enough to be an NBA power forward, it was said, not a good enough shooter to be an NBA small forward. The Warriors drafted him in the second round, partially for his leadership. He delivered. Even his rookie season, he was one of the outspoken Warriors in a locker room that included Stephen Curry, Andrew Bogut and Jarrett Jack.

“He’s honest and he holds everybody accountable whether you’re the best player or the worst player,” Mark Jackson said a few minutes before I met with Green. “I think the most important thing is, if you’re going to talk, you’ve got to make sure that the congregation believes that you really care, care about winning. He has proven that.”

As Jackson was talking, Green shot jumpers. Most of the other players had finished their post-practice shooting, but Green had just started because he spent the first 20 minutes after practice talking with Jackson. Green sat next to Jackson on a table against a wall under a basket and, as Jackson spoke, the coach gazed across the court and waved his hands in slow, deliberate movements like a minister. Green rested his right knee on the table and turned to face Jackson, nodding, asking questions, learning. A one-man congregation.

As Green sat next to Jackson on the table, Bogut approached reporters for a group interview. I asked Bogut if he considers Green a leader.

“He’s definitely the leader of our bench group,” Bogut said.

That was praise and a put-down all in one. Typical Bogut.

Curry walked over next. I asked how Green is a leader.

“He’s a winner,” Curry said. “He’s never been on a losing team. He does the little things to help your team win. For a second-year player to be able to do that is pretty special.”

When the interview ended and Curry walked to the locker room, Green was still shooting. The only player left on the court. A few minutes later, he stopped, sat down on a chair next to me and we began our talk.

“How did you get your leadership ability?” I asked him.

He didn’t answer right away. He looked down, organizing his thoughts. And then he launched into it.

“A lot of the credit goes to my mom,” he said. “She used to always tell me not to be a follower, to be a leader. Get in trouble in class – you’re being a follower, not being a leader. Get in trouble around the neighborhood – you’re not being a leader. Don’t be a follower.

“Growing up playing basketball, I was always outspoken. I demanded whatever I thought the team needed. I was being myself, but in a leadership role. At Michigan State, Coach Izzo put me in a role that helped me and will help me my entire life. It taught me a way to lead – learn everyone’s personality. I had to learn secretaries’ personalities. I had to learn video guys’ personalities, coaches’ personalities, players’. It required me to put time into it, a lot of time taking guys to lunch, or going to sit in the office when I had a break as opposed to going home and taking a nap. Just lingering, figuring people out.

“You have to figure out what people respond to. There are some players you may need to yell at. That fires them up. I used to be a guy who just yelled in high school and when I first got to college. I figured out that certain guys didn’t respond well to yelling. They would completely shut down on you.

“When they shut down, you have to double-back and make sure you smooth it out. I have to pull him to the side and say, ‘This is what we need you to do. Come on, let’s get it done.’ Or some guys, you have to go up to them and say, ‘Hey, man, he can’t guard you. You’re better than him.’

“There were times when Coach Izzo would yell at a guy and I knew that guy couldn’t handle yelling, so I would get into an argument with Coach Izzo just to take the heat off of the player. Coach Izzo wants someone firing back at him, so I would throw myself into it to get Coach Izzo off my guy. If Coach Izzo kept yelling at him, I knew we’d lose him for the rest of the game. So I would throw myself under the bus to get Coach Izzo yelling at me because I can handle yelling. It doesn’t bother me.

“Now I’ve come to the Warriors, and I’ve had to figure out how to lead with these guys. If I need to tell a coach something that happened on the court, how do I approach that coach? How do I approach David Lee? How do I approach Klay Thompson? How do I approach Marreese Speights? How do I approach Andrew Bogut? How do I approach Steph Curry?”

“How do you approach Curry?” I asked Green.

“You really have to tell him stuff,” Green said. “That’s how I approach him. I’ll say, ‘Steph, you should have done this.’ And he’ll say, ‘You’re right, I got you.’”

“Are you a good player?” I asked.

Green paused, thinking about it. He nodded his head and said, “I feel like I’m a decent player.”

I asked, “Will you become a more forceful leader as your production increases?”

Green shook his head right away, didn’t have to think about that.

“I call those types of guys ‘Frontrunners,’” he said. “Whether I’m playing bad or good, my demeanor always is the same because I’m not a frontrunner. If things aren’t going well for me, I’m going to lead guys. I’m not going to just sit there. That’s not me. I wouldn’t expect guys to respect me if that was me. If you feel like you have to step into more of a leadership role as your production grows, that means you think you’ve become a more forceful guy because you’re putting up bigger numbers.

“I’m going to be the same person regardless.”

We both stood up and shook hands. He said he had enjoyed himself. He turned and walked toward the locker room. His walk was confident.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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