On Sunday, Javonte Green attended an NBA game for the first time, and he also happened to play in it. And 20 seconds after entering the Celtics’ preseason matchup against the Hornets, he caught a missed shot and violently slammed the ball through the basket.
He had four more electrifying dunks during his 10-minute stint, finishing 7 for 7 with 15 points. Despite this, most of the Garden’s attention was on 7-foot-5-inch center Tacko Fall, whom fans clamored for all night long.
For Green, being overlooked while dominating a basketball game is nothing new.
He was a Virginia high school player of the year and led his team to a state title as a senior, but he received just one Division 1 scholarship offer, and even that took some fortuitous timing.
He was a first-team All-Big South Conference choice and the defensive player of the year at Radford, but that just got him two NBA draft workouts that fizzled.
He was the MVP of his league in Spain in his first season overseas, but three more years passed before he got the chance he was truly seeking.
But now Green, a 6-4 wing, is charging toward his improbable dream. He has emerged as the favorite to land the Celtics’ final roster spot while following an extremely unorthodox path.
“It’s an unreal story, it really is,” said Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge. “There are not many guys we sign that we didn’t follow at all coming up. It really is as much of an out-of-nowhere story as we see, and it’s really pretty cool.”
‘We got lucky’
Green grew up near Petersburg, Va., about 25 miles from the North Carolina border. He sprouted 4 inches in the summer before his junior year at Brunswick High and starred in basketball, football, baseball, and track. While that was great for his school, it made things more challenging for Green as he sought a Division 1 scholarship.
Even though he made fans roar while throwing down 360-degree dunks, he was not a fixture on the AAU circuit, where hidden gems do not stay hidden. Instead, Green filled those days at quarterback or playing center field.
J.D. Byers, then an assistant coach at St. Francis (Pa.) University, received a tip about Green from a high school coach whose team had faced him. Byers began keeping tabs on Green and was wowed by his athleticism.
Green led Brunswick to the 2011 Group AA, Division 3 state title and was named the state player on the year in his division. But St. Francis decided he did not fit a need, and it never offered a scholarship.
That June, Virginia Commonwealth assistant Mike Jones was named head coach at Radford, a 10,000-student university in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Very few recruits were still available, so Jones began rifling through highlight DVDs sent to him by high school coaches from around the country.
Eventually he came upon a grainy reel that included a clip of a chiseled boy putting the ball between his legs in midair and dunking. Around that time, he added Byers to his staff, and when Green’s name came up, Byers — the only Division 1 coach who’d paid Green much mind — was ecstatic that there was a chance to sign him after all.
Jones called Brunswick coach Bryant Stith, who played 10 years in the NBA, and asked him to be honest about Green.
“Mike,” Stith told him, “you’ll never regret having him on your team. Trust me.”
On June 30, the last day that prospects could take official campus visits, Green arrived at Radford wearing a shirt and tie. Jones said it’s the only time in his 25 years of coaching a recruit has done that.
“At the time, I didn’t really have anything to lose,” Jones said. “We needed players. It was late in the game, and he was just one of those deals that fell through the cracks and got overlooked. No doubt, we got lucky.”
A high flyer
When those close to Green are asked to recall a specific play or moment that sums up his unusual athleticism, their first reaction is usually to chuckle, because the highlight library is so vast.
There was the high school playoff matchup when Green used three powerful dunks to ignite a 10-0 run and a comeback win. There was Radford’s game against Longwood, when Green stole an inbounds pass and almost simultaneously soared toward the rim as the passer stepped on the court to stop him.
“And Javonte literally jumped over the guy’s head,” Jones said with a laugh.
When Radford played at Charleston Southern during Green’s junior year, the bandbox of a gym was packed with students, including a group of football players in the front row who were talented hecklers.
Green had 33 points and 11 rebounds and silenced everyone. After the game, one of the football players called for Green to get off the team bus and meet him on the curb. Then the football player extended his hand and said he’d never seen a performance quite like that one.
“What Javonte does is play hungry,” Jones said. “He plays like he has this hunger to beat you, to survive, to prove himself.”
The Highlanders won just six games during Green’s freshman year before winning 22 in both his junior and senior seasons. Green made Radford basketball cool, and students started pouring in.
“A lot of it was because it was a safe bet that if they came to a home game, they were going to see something that they haven’t seen before,” said former Radford assistant Kyle Getter, now a coach at Virginia.
Added Byers: “There were times he’d get a steal and rise up, and you’d just look around and say, ‘Now, that’s different.’ ”
Green became Radford’s career leader in rebounds and steals and finished second in scoring. He hoped to become the first NBA player in school history. But at 6-4, he was operating as an undersized power forward, and while that is possible in the Big South, it is less sustainable at higher levels.
An NBA quest
The Celtics take pride in finding prospects that others are mostly unfamiliar with. But Ainge concedes that when Green was at Radford, they simply did not know of him.
Green had predraft workouts with the Blazers and Jazz, but nothing materialized. He ended up signing with a third-division team in Marin, Spain. After being named league MVP, he spent two years with a second-division team in Trieste, Italy. Last summer, Green joined the Suns’ summer league team but was used sparingly, and he ended up with the German club Ratiopharm Ulm.
By then, Green had transitioned to a more suitable wing position, and he was terrorizing opposing ball-handlers and flashing NBA athleticism. This time, the Celtics noticed.
“He’d have, like, four ridiculous dunks every game,” Ainge said. “He does some superhuman things. But the main thing is his defense. He just really, really guards. He was one of the better defensive wings in all of Europe.”
Ainge said the Celtics had internal discussions about signing Green during the middle of last season. When they did not, he became the highest priority for their summer roster. But after his frustrating experience on Phoenix’s squad a year earlier, Green was reluctant.
“It probably took me a month and a half of talking to him and his agent to convince him to even play summer league with us,” Ainge said. “It was quite a recruitment process for a summer league invite. But we had to convince him that we had serious interest and were strongly considering him for the Celtics.”
Green remained relatively unknown when he arrived for summer league, but his soaring dunks changed that quickly. He said that because he operated under the radar for so long, many people still thought he was a 22-year-old rookie, but he is 26, hardened and motivated by past slights and years of pro competition. He hopes that comes across in his play.
Green was on a summer league contract in Las Vegas, so he was really auditioning for all 30 teams. And Jones, Radford’s coach, said the Thunder and Jazz both reached out to him and made it clear they had serious interest.
But Green felt comfortable in the Celtics system and appreciated their tradition. And even though there was more money on the table overseas, he signed a partially guaranteed deal, determined to battle for a roster spot.
Ainge has told Green they view him in the mold of former Celtics guard Tony Allen or Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, two defensive-minded, relentless pests who make life miserable for opponents.
“And that’s what I do,” Green said. “I feel like that’s why I’m here.”
Although Green has crafted an unlikely feel-good story, it is juxtaposed against the basketball world’s growing obsession with Fall.
Typically, the battle for a final roster spot is mostly inconsequential. Last year, the Celtics left it open for most of the year after parting ways with Jabari Bird. But Tacko Mania has taken over.
For his part, Green is unbothered by it. He said he is pulling for Fall, too, and that if the big man makes the team over him, he’ll be happy for him. He thinks there is a place for both of them in the NBA.
Nevertheless, Green appears to be the one best positioned to help Boston win now. And if the Celtics ultimately decide to go in a different direction, Green has shown time and again that being passed over will not faze him.
“Javonte’s not afraid of any situation or anyone,” said Stith, his former high school coach. “He has nothing to lose.”