While Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jeff Green continues to be a polarizing player throughout many circles, it's interesting that those closest to him – his teammates, his head coach, the team's executives – have nothing but the utmost respect for his contributions to the team and for his outstanding character.
Rodney Dangerfield, anyone? Perhaps those outside the organization will always look for increasing numbers on a stat sheet to measure a player's value; as for those inside, Green's on-court versatility, leadership and intelligence are just a few attributes highly appreciated by this team
Fortunately, Uncle Jeff (his awesome nickname) shakes off any criticism, confidently sharing that his focus will be "off the charts" this year. When he was cut from Team USA over the summer, bitterness didn't creep in. Quite the opposite, in fact. He walked away feeling blessed by the opportunity, vowing to parlay the experience into motivation to keep improving his game.
He waves off any discussion of his expiring contract, now eligible for extension, by simply responding that he had hoped to secure an extension over the summer, but has left the matter between his agent and the Thunder's front office.
One would think that the head coach may watch Green very closely in this all-important expiring contract year. Surely he aims to step up his game this season to prove his worth, right?
"It hasn't even crossed my mind," answered Coach Scott Brooks. "There's no doubt that some players I've played with, or that I coached, that is the agenda. But Jeff….that hasn't even crossed my mind."
Case closed….at least as far as these two are willing to concede.
The topic that Brooks and Green do discuss is their close personal relationship, a fact that isn't particularly well known. Ask Brooks why Green is so important to this team (while many have him penciled in as expendable), and he answers directly.
"He does a lot for us," Brooks said prior to the first preseason game tip-off at home in front of Oklahoma City fans. "We love Jeff...we love Jeff. I love Jeff."
"There's no doubt that I have a special bond with all the guys, but Jeff…," he continued, his voice trailing off a bit. "I like him. I like what he's about. I like what he does for us. He sacrifices, and he has to do that."
"I like what he does for us," he repeated, with emphasis.
"We're real close," Green told HOOPSWORLD of Brooks. "That's because he was an assistant, and he was the guy that worked me out before games and before practice and after practice, so we had a special bond before he became head coach."
Let's back up a bit.
Brooks, the quintessential players' coach, played in the league for 10 seasons with six different teams from 1988-89 to 1997-98. He even has a ring from the 1994 Houston Rockets championship title. After leaving the NBA, Brooks coached in the ABA for a couple years; he then landed as George Karl's assistant coach in Denver from 2003-06, followed by a stint as an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings during the 2006-07 season.
Initially, Brooks was interviewed for the franchise's head coach position (which ultimately went to P.J. Carlisemo), but he impressed executive vice-president and general manager Sam Presti so much that he was hired as an assistant in August 2007.
In his first year with the Thunder franchise, Brooks was assigned to work with then-rookie Green, the fifth overall draft pick (actually acquired on draft day by trade with the Celtics). They forged a closeness during that season, and now, two years later as Green embarks on his fourth year in the league, Brooks explains why this playing-for-a-contract thing isn't Green's style.
"Maybe because I know him, who he was when he came into the league," said Brooks. "And he hasn't changed."
"He's a pro," Brooks added. "He's a pro and he likes to be on this team. He's still works every day in practice. He still tries to get better; he still tries to make the right play."
Green credits the relationship for directly impacting his performance.
"He's part of the reason my game expanded," shared Green. "He knows most the stuff I can do because we've been together so long."
Recently, former teammate Etan Thomas penned an article giving thanks to many for the Thunder experience. He also shared his views on Jeff Green.
"Allow me to speak from first-hand experience, from someone who has actually seen what goes on behind closed doors and has been in the trenches with the team for an entire season," began Thomas.
"(Jeff) Green, in my opinion, is underappreciated and is an integral part of the Thunder success. He doesn't complain about shots, or touches, or lack of accolades or praise. He just goes out there and does his job. He is too quick for most power forwards and too strong for most small forwards."
Then Thomas got down to the nitty gritty about what makes the former Hoya star special in the NBA, with a clever nod to his own alma mater.
"After completing his years at a great system at Georgetown University (although he could've also been great if he attended Syracuse) his game really blossomed, which happens a lot when players make the transition from Georgetown to the NBA. They play in a system, and learn the fundamentals, teamwork and how to play within the confines of structure. It usually proves to be more than beneficial to their growth as players."
On this rising Thunder team, it's easy to heap praises solely on the stand-out players. Praise doesn't come so easily to the glue-guy-types like Green. As we know though, a couple exceptional players can't do it alone. And this team is nothing if not true to its pledge to collective growth. The teamwork approach is what they see as key for success.
"We have some good players on our team and not everyone can be the leading scorer; not everyone can be the high-assist man," Brooks explained. "Some guys have to sacrifice. We all do. I mean Kevin (Durant) sacrifices, but Jeff is a teammate that guys like because they know that he brings effort every night. He's consistent, and he doesn't change, and he doesn't change his habits.
"When I was an assistant, that was my guy," the NBA's reigning Coach of the Year said affectionately about Green. "I worked him out every day. (I worked to) get him better every day."
"He's my guy," Green told us in the locker room about Brooks after the preseason win over Moscow.
Obviously there's mutual admiration going on here.
"Yeah, we try to keep it a secret; we don't want anyone to know," he added with a smile.
The secret is officially out, Uncle Jeff.