Right next to the entrance of the Heat’s practice center, there’s a whiteboard on the wall that says “Leader Board” and under three different categories: three-minute shooting (most shots in that span), around the world (three straight shots in five spots) and 100 threes (most on a given way).
First-year Heat player Gerald Green is the team’s leader in around the world (55 seconds) and 100 threes (89 out of 100). And he’s second in three-minute shooting (52 makes). Not only has he been averaging 12.7 points as the team’s fill-in starting small forward in the past six games, he’s also been effective on the defensive end, with his initial matchups shooting 40.2 percent during that stretch.
“That’s my goal here—to try to better myself, try to prove to everybody that I’m more of a complete player,” he said.
Green’s basketball journey has taken him around the world, including two years playing abroad from 2009-11, and something has always bothered him along the way: being labeled by many as simply a dunker. But when he met with Heat president Pat Riley during this year’s free agency, the 29-year-old finally felt recognized for a skill he had never been highlighted for in his career—not dunking, but defense. He even accepted a lower contract than in previous years—one year at $1.4 million—to sign with the Heat.
Speaking candidly with the NBPA, Green opened up on his thoughts on dunking, the pivotal meeting with Riley, his hoops development and role with the Heat, and much more. His conversation with the NBPA is presented below in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length.
I remember the first day I came to Miami this past summer, and I’ll never forget it. This is what made me really want to start guarding guys. It was the first time I ever met Pat Riley, and it was intimidating. I heard a lot of stories about him and knew about his success. He said, “I want you to be who everybody thinks you’re not, or thinks you can’t be or thinks you won’t ever be. That’s what I want you to be here, and that’s your challenge.”
When he said that, he didn’t even have to tell me what it was; I already knew what he was talking about. That was something that just really motivated me over the summer. I said, “Let me get into the best shape that I’ve ever been in before, so I can really get after guys defensively in training camp.” And that’s what I did working out in Miami all summer.
One thing that I always use on defense is my athleticism. The thing about athleticism is it can take you a long ways. It helps me to challenge shots, it helps me to stay in front of guys, it helps me rebound the ball, it helps me just be active on that end. I know I don’t give up a lot of mass weight—a lot of guys are stronger because I’m holding bigger guys—but I think my athleticism is just as good as theirs and I’m just as long as those guys.
I just try to keep a body in front and contest shots with my quickness, which also helps me get back into defensive position. At the end of the day if all that doesn’t work, I’ll always have help with my team defense. I think that Hassan Whiteside makes it a lot easier for me to get up in guys and really be active and be aggressive.
Defensively, it’s not anything that’s skilled; it’s a will thing. So when I watch a lot of film, it gives me the knowledge of players. This player likes to go left all the time, this player likes to go right. If I remember seeing this player, I watched so much film of you that I’m going to kind of know what you like to do.
I think when I really started getting defense was when I was in Indiana in 2012-13. Coach Frank Vogel had great defensive schemes. I think that’s when I kind of really started to understand help-defense concepts. Overseas, basketball is different because you can just sit in the paint for all day in the world. I think once I came back to the league in 2012 with the Nets and then got with Indiana, I really got what a good defensive team is supposed to be like.
It was the physicality of Indiana’s defense. It’s just how you want to try to make everything tough, not switch things, make sure you crack down on bigs (helping the help defender), sink down on different things, know when rotations are needed, make sure when you’re trapping the ball to have high hands—just little things that you might not pick up. It’s little things that goes in between the game that’s not going to be seen as the big picture, but if you get those little things, you’ll see the bigger picture clearer.
My whole career I’ve had to overcome just being known as a dunker. Everybody else may think I’m into dunking, but I’m not really into dunking like that. I’m just not. That’s not something I go to; it’s just a habit. I’ve never worked on dunking in my life.
I entered the 2007 All-Star dunk contest because I was young and thought it was cool. It was good exposure for me; I got to put my name out there. I just told myself, “Hey, man, let me just use this to cherish the moment, but use it to get better. Everybody knows you can dunk; now expand your game and take it to the next level. I’ve always known I can shoot, but try to just be a better scorer, become a better ball-handler, become a better pick-and-roll player—just become a better all-around player.” And that’s what I just tried to do over the years.
To me, dunking is dunking; it’s just two points to me. I’d rather shoot a three than dunk, and the game is changing that way. The alley-oop dunk is a momentum play, but the game has more threes. Now you’ve got 6’5″ centers shooting threes. I remember when I came in the league in 2005, there were more 7’0″ centers and 6’10” power forwards, and now it’s 6’6″ point guards and 6’5″ centers. It’s weird.
The dunking label is something that I think I will never probably get rid of. I even talked to Vince Carter about it once. We talked about why a lot of guys don’t want to get in the dunk contest any more, because it kind of labels guys. Vince was obviously one of the best dunkers of all time, but he’s probably one of the greatest offensive-skilled guys in his era, but he doesn’t get the credit for it because he was a great dunker. Vince can shoot a half-court shot like a free throw, and consistently make it, but he doesn’t get the credit for it.
Everybody remembers him just dunking over everybody in the league, and that’s not fair because a guy that talented, he could do whatever he wanted on the floor offensively and defensively, but only got credit for dunking. And I think that’s why you’ve got guys like me, Blake Griffin and LeBron James who never want to get in the dunk contest because it’s not fair for us. We work so hard in the summertime, and then everybody just labels us as dunkers. So I think I won’t ever probably break that myth until I get a ring hopefully. And even then, I think people will still say, “Oh, he’s just a dunker.”
Obviously dunking is like a highlight, but sometimes highlight plays are not winning plays sometimes. You will never see Gerald Green’s top 10 three-point shots, Gerald Green’s top 10 best moves, but you’ll see Gerald Green’s top 10 alley-oop dunks or top 10 fast-break dunks or top 10 dunks. I’m not bitter about it; that’s just why I kind of don’t like to talk about dunking because I just want it to be irrelevant.
I’ve always felt like I could score and shoot the ball besides dunking—even in my rookie year. I averaged 10.4 points my second year in the league, so I think for me scoring wasn’t the biggest thing. I think it was just trying to learn the game. I didn’t really know how to play. I grew up playing in the parks and playing in a charter school.
We were organized, but we were just trying to do something to stay out of the streets. So for me to come into a professional standpoint and really learn the system and learn the defensive schemes, and offensive and defensive terminology, I didn’t really know that as a 19-year-kid coming out of high school in the NBA.
I didn’t have a college to teach me to slide on defense and to make sure to work on your defensive help, and learn how to take charges and do little things. In my high school, we didn’t even have a gym, so a lot of times we would just meet up to go play games, and that’s it—just to keep the kids out of the hood, out of the streets.
I learned a lot when I was playing overseas. I think it really taught me what I needed to learn for not going to college. My IQ got bigger, I got wiser, I got smarter. I started knowing the game more. Being overseas, I became more of a student of the game, too. I was watching Russian TV or watching NBA TV, so I was always watching basketball games or watching other players, and trying to convert what I saw into my game.
Honestly, if I had to do it all over again, I would come out of high school again all day. I just didn’t apply myself like I should’ve. Obviously my parents guided me to getting a job, but nobody took me under his wing as a player and said, “Hey, man, come do this.’ I always was taught coming in the NBA that this is a dog-eat-dog-world business, so nobody was trying to help me out. It was like somebody was trying to take my spot.
But I’ve always had confidence in myself that I can do certain things—even with my shot. It’s like you’re trying to strike for oil; you’ve got to keep pumping that drill. You might not get the oil at first, but one of those days it’s going to pop. I’ve just got to keep on pumping that drill, keep on doing what I need to do. Sometimes I might not shoot well, but once I find my rhythm, it’s on. And when I’m on, ain’t nobody stopping me; I don’t care who you are. I’m just that confident in myself.
From guarding Carmelo Anthony to Kevin Durant this season, I’m loving it. This is what I’ve been waiting for. This team is giving me so much confidence to go out there and guard guys. I know I’m not the best defender in the world, I know I’m not even the best defender on this team, but I just go out there and give it my full effort, try to learn everyday, try to get better. That’s all that I can ask for of myself—to go out there and be coachable, accept criticism from my teammates and from my coaches when I’m making mistakes out there.
Honestly it’s kind of crazy, but coming to Miami is my career highlight. I never really played with an organization, besides Boston, that has that type of championship stature. Just coming here, you look at three championship banners everyday in practice, you walk through the locker room and see the championships celebrated, as soon as you get to the arena you see championship admiration, you see all the pictures of guys holding trophies and celebrating.
In my career, I’ve been everywhere and I’ve never felt so at a place at home than I am now. I’m not even going to lie, I thought Phoenix was the place where I thought I was going to be at when I first went there in 2013. It didn’t work out, but even the first day I got to Phoenix, I didn’t feel like I felt here. I kind of felt like I would only be there if we maybe made it to the playoffs or if we were really good.
Here, I feel like if I just conduct myself as a great human being, play well on the court, do what I need to do for the organization—this is family—good things will happen for me. As long as I don’t let my family down and let my Heat brothers down, I think that this can be a place that I can see myself in the future.
I’m blessed to be able to play this long, I’m blessed to be able to be around these guys. So to be here in this type of city, this type of organization, it’s just truly a blessing for me—it really is. I know I have a long ways to go as far as being who I can be for this team, and everyday I just try to get better on both ends of the court.