March 2, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-line Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Draymond Green's versatility knows no bounds.
We all know him as the multi-dimensional basketball player who scores inside, from long range and anywhere in between. He leads Michigan State in scoring and rebounding and is in a virtual tie with Keith Appling for assists. He's the only player to appear in the top 10 of each of those three categories in the Big Ten.
With an effervescent personality reminiscent of the incomparable Earvin "Magic" Johnson and the unrivaled Mateen Cleaves, Green fills a vital leadership role whether as coach Tom Izzo's proxy on the court, a big brother to younger players in the locker room and team social director.
He's one of the most engaging and thoughtful spokesmen, on nearly any topic, in MSU athletics history regardless of sport. He played in a national championship game, has two Big Ten title rings, is a cinch first-team all-conference pick and a strong finalist for Player of the Year honors, and more than likely will become Michigan State's 22nd All-American.
"It speaks to what I've been saying," Izzo said. "He does so many different things for us, and some of them are un-measurable, like an assist that leads to another assist that he doesn't get credit for, or driving defenders down by shuffle-dribbling and kicking it out, the leadership I say he doesn't get recognized for enough.
"That's why I've called him a poor, poor, poor man's Magic."
Would that make Johnson a rich, rich, rich man's "Day Day," as Green is known?
Regardless, if Green wasn't excelling on the hardwood he might be standing out on the baseball diamond or football field as he did in his youth.
"I played first base, and was a big target, too," the 6-foot-7 Green said. "I hit with power and would knock it over the fence. I played tight end and defensive end in football."
Green has a wide-ranging taste in music that would surprise those who tend to form preconceived notions about today's young, successful athletes.
"I think something a lot of people wouldn't expect out of me is I'm kind of a laidback type of guy," Green said. "So if you get in my car, there'll be slow music playing. I like R&B, gospel, something like that. I think a lot of guys are insecure about themselves, so if they're around other dudes, they won't listen to R&B, but I don't care - I feel very comfortable with myself.
"And if there are guys in the car with me I'll listen to R&B. I listen to rap, of course, but I'll get in that mode when I want to listen to some Lyfe Jennings, and of course Luther (Vandross)."
Green even confessed to having Mary J. Blige and Beyonce coursing through his headphones on occasion, though his spontaneous belly-laughs substantiate the ribbing he'll receive from his teammates for making such an admission.
But while Green can play it soft, he can also come on strong like the way he did at Illinois when a rare loss of composure netted him a technical foul. Even that instance was a revelation because uncharacteristic, or not, it showed how much winning matters to him.
It's hard to imagine the Spartans rising to the level they have if Green wasn't on hand to catalyze a positive reaction within a mix of players ranging from former walk-on and fellow senior captain Austin Thornton to 2011 McDonald's All-American Branden Dawson to one-time overweight Derrick Nix to transfer Brandon Wood, who brought baggage from three different college programs with him to MSU this season.
"I hear people (say), `Well, if Draymond wasn't there, it wouldn't be the same team,'" Izzo said. "What Einstein figured that out? If Magic Johnson wasn't there, they wouldn't have been the same team. I just laugh when I hear that."
Johnson's greatest attribute was the ability to make everybody on his teams better. Green's may be by making sure everybody on the team feels invested, involved and important.
"In all our games, I think I've led us in scoring in about half of them," Green said. "That's probably not the case for the best player on most other teams, but that's also the way they have to win.
"That's what makes us so different and is one of the good things about this team. On any given night we've got guys who can go off and do different things. Our unselfishness has been a big part of it. A team usually takes on the personality of its leader, and I think our guys have done that."
Oh, Izzo will miss Green's points, rebounds and other measurables long after he kisses the Spartan logotype at midcourt on Senior Day. But leaders who make a dramatic difference between success and failure, as Green has, don't come around very often in a coach's career.
"Draymond wasn't a top-25 kid coming out, and neither was Austin," Izzo said. "The other players see guys who've earned it and I think because of that, things have fallen into place a little better for us.
"I'm not over-worrying about it because there's so much on our plate right now. But every once in a while when something happens, I say, `Day Day take care of that,' and then I remind those guys that somebody else is going to have to take care of it next year. That's how important it is."
What even Izzo may find interesting is that Green doesn't consider himself a natural-born leader. Like everything else about his game - his fitness, emotional maturity and range rebounding, to name a few - it was something he developed and honed through trial and error during good times and bad.
Although Green was the hands-down obvious choice to lead the Spartans this season, it was a role he happily accepted more out of wide-eyed necessity than blind ambition.
"I knew it wouldn't be the easiest job," said Green. "And it's definitely not. It's an everyday task, but if that's what it takes to win, that's what I'm about."
In the implausible scenario that MSU would have been better served by Green assuming a subservient role, he would have, because unlike Johnson and Cleaves, he's somewhat of a late bloomer in the leadership department. However, after deferring to the upperclassmen in previous seasons, Green was more than ready to assert himself.
"In order to be a great leader, you have to be a great follower first because you have to learn from somewhere," Green said. "One thing I always tell our guys is that you have to be a good follower even if you plan to be a leader one day."
Without knowing how much Green's influence would affect a team that returned just one full-time starter after senior Delvon Roe retired for health reasons, and had to blend in six players who'd be wearing the Green and White for the first time, the preseason prognosticators left the Spartans out of the Top 25 and gave them only an outside chance to contend for the conference championship.
Michigan State's subsequent ascension through the Big Ten and national ranks is a tribute to what went on behind the scenes when such predictions were being made.
"For the most part, growing together as a team this summer was big," Green said. "Of course, you have to have somebody buy into something because nobody's just giving in to everything. That's an everyday process.
"It hasn't been the easiest road for me, but it's something I had to do. The one thing we all know is we have the same goal, and that's to win. When you want to win, you have to be on the same page, and it's not hard to figure that page out."
According to Wood, who came to Michigan State after a stellar two-year stint at Valparaiso following stops at Southern Illinois and Highland (Ill.) Community College, Green is an uncommon presence.
"It was weird for me because I've never been on a team that had a player-coach on it, and that's what he is, whether it's how he carries himself, his work ethic or just being vocal," Wood said. "He's talking the whole time in meetings and on the court, making sure we're where we need to be.
"It was an eye-opener for me. He's a smart guy who's always making good decisions on or off the court. He's somebody people look up to because even though he's had success he's still humble and works hard. The biggest thing is he's somebody everybody can trust and that's why we're so close as a team."
Disjointed teams that rely mostly on their coaches for direction often struggle to reach their goals. Teams that unify behind a player usually enjoy the journey more and make it last as long as possible.
"The key to our chemistry starts with Day Day and his leadership because if you don't have good chemistry, more times than not you're not going to be successful," Wood said. "To be honest, players often need to hear positive and negative feedback from a player for it to sink in.
"Sometimes when you constantly hear a coach constantly in your ear, you tend to tune it out, but to have somebody who's going through the same things you are say it in a different way is something to be cherished and is something Day Day is very good at doing."
Bo Ryan, the head coach of Wisconsin, one of MSU's chief adversaries in recent seasons, doesn't rate players, but in not doing so heaped high praise on Green after he led the Spartans to an important 69-55 victory against the Badgers.
"He's a good player," Ryan said. "I never know what else to say. I would have said that about Larry Bird if somebody said, `How good do you think Larry Bird is?' He's a good player, a guy you'd like to have.
"Draymond's a guy you'd like to have."
Regardless of all his strengths, Green knows whatever he achieves in the twilight of his MSU career depends on his teammates as much as they depend on him. That's why his most important mission has been to help the younger players improve every day.
"Of course the sense of urgency picks up because your days are numbered and you don't have many second chances when you're in the position me and Austin are in," Green said. "If we accomplish our team goals, the individual things will happen. That's why the only things I worry about are what we need to take care about as a team.
"The one thing we've always done around here is, we play for our seniors. When I was a freshman, we were playing to get Travis Walton to his first Final Four. Then, Raymar (Morgan) and Zeke's (Isaiah Dahlman) senior year we wanted to send them out on a positive note. That's just what we do as a program. But what I've told the guys is, regardless of what my situation is, you can't take things for granted.
"You have to make the best out of every opportunity you have because it may not ever come back around to you again."
Izzo will rely on Green a lot in the coming weeks to make sure the Spartans make the most of whatever opportunities come their way.
"That's a good combination right now," Izzo said. "I'm not egotistical enough to think I can get this done by myself, because I can't. And when you've got a guy like him, who can take care of his part, he knows this: he's not going into a game unprepared.
"I know I'm not going into a game without a warrior next to me."