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Jeff Green hoping his unselfish play propels Jazz

To find success in 2019, the Jazz would be wise to look to Jeff Green’s years at Georgetown in the mid-2000s.

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Utah Jazz forward Jeff Green poses for photos during media day at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Jeff Green wants one thing out of this season. He stated it clearly, alliteratively, confidently and sans hesitation when asked. He signed with the Jazz — on a one-year, league-minimum contract — for it. It motivates him. It informs his play, plus his relationship with his teammates.

“Winning a championship,” he said. “That’s the main goal.”

And not because he’s 32, entering his 12th NBA season, with his eighth NBA organization, and hasn’t raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Nor because he wants to regain the recognition he carried as the fifth overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft. He’s always just been “a team-first guy.” In his case, that term isn’t just a tired sports cliche — he’s lived it. And for the upcoming Jazz season to be destined for his — and the organization’s — first hoisting of that trophy, his teammates would do well to follow his lead and eliminate any ego. 

“I don’t personally make individual goals. This is a team sport,” Green said. “I’m not here for individual things. I’m here to be a part of a team and have a chance to play for a championship.”

He’s had that chance before.

In 2007, Georgetown advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1985. It was led by two players who would later find NBA success. One was future two-time All-Star Roy Hibbert; the other, who led the Hoyas in scoring, was Green. 

Georgetown lost to Mike Conley’s Ohio State Buckeyes, but Green’s former coach wonders whether the team would have advanced to that stage without Green’s (and his teammates’) selfless play. 

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Georgetown’s Jeff Green shoots during practice in Washington, Tuesday, March 27, 2007, as Georgetown prepared to face Ohio State in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. Green joined the Jazz before this season.

Hara N. Ghanbari, Associated Press

“Jeff Green could’ve averaged 30 points a game in college. But I don’t know if we would’ve had the success we had,” said John Thompson III, now vice president of player engagement for the parent organization of the Washington Wizards. “And you’d literally see him having enjoyment when his teammates were playing well.”

Thompson would know better than most about Green’s thought processes, and his style of play. They still talk regularly, he said, and Thompson called his former player “Jeffrey Lynn Green” on first reference. 

When Thompson arrived at Georgetown, Green — then a “back-to-the-basket center” — was already committed to the Hoyas. But Green didn’t know his new coach, and one of Thompson’s first tasks was to convince him to stick with his pledge. 

It took “some work,” Thompson admitted, but it was worth it. He could tell immediately that Green had a special “feel for the game,” and a chance to transcend his position. At one of Green’s first practices, Thompson told him to get behind the 3-point line and shoot. 

“Me?” Green asked. 

Yes, him. 

So shoot he did. Over his three-year college career, Green developed into a complete player — one who’d lead the Hoyas in scoring (14.3 points per game) while placing second in rebounds (6.4) behind Hibbert (6.9) and assists (3.2) behind Jessie Sapp (3.5). 

His well-roundedness was displayed during Utah’s preseason loss to Milwaukee on Wednesday, when he scored seven points and tallied six rebounds and two assists in 20 minutes. 

“Jeff is someone who can do everything on the basketball court at an elite level,” Thompson said. “He sees everything on the court. The game comes naturally and easy to him.”

Damien Wilkins, who played with Green his rookie season, also recognized his versatility. Wilkins lamented that few of Green’s past teams have appreciated his flexibility.

“I’ve always wanted him to be in a position where someone allows him to expand his game,” Wilkins, a 10-season NBA veteran, said, “because he really can do it all.”

And, Wilkins added, in the same way that brought him success at Georgetown.

“He’s one of the most unselfish guys I’ve played with in my career,” Wilkins said.

On Monday, Green took slight offense to the suggestion that he — or any of his teammates — are exclusively power forwards. He’ll play the position if that’s what’ll help the team win, he said, but as Thompson and Wilkins observed, he’s versatile. 

“I’m down to do whatever it takes to help this team win. Whether that means coming off the bench to guard, or mentoring some of our younger guys, I’m gonna do whatever it takes. There’s not one thing I can’t do, so I’m looking forward to it all.” — Jeff Green

“I’m down to do whatever it takes to help this team win,” Green said. “Whether that means coming off the bench to guard, or mentoring some of our younger guys, I’m gonna do whatever it takes. There’s not one thing I can’t do, so I’m looking forward to it all.”

And again, with Green, this approach is beyond the cliche. 

“That’s who he is to the core,” Thompson said. “It’s not lip service.”

That personality trait provides strong backup for the team-first culture the Jazz are trying to cultivate. Thompson observed that aside from playing for a contender, Green is an ideal fit for the Jazz because he buys into that system — one that Thompson said Utah has already built. Green “just adds to the mix.”

Even with widespread recognition for his well-rounded play and without personal goals, when asked what he could most improve on, Green said that he needs to work on “everything.” That complacency breeds failure in the postseason. That no competitor should ever be satisfied with past achievements or preseason puffery. And that despite Utah’s and his own team-first attitude, the season is long and unpredictable.

But when asked why there’s reason for optimism — reason to believe this team can exceed its hype — he offered a similar response. He stated it concisely, thoughtfully and thoroughly.

The Jazz, he said, have “every element.” Now, their task will be letting each element breathe.

“We have depth. We have veterans who’ve won. We have a young, talented, rising star in Donovan,” he explained. “We have guys who are gritty, who can do it all, like Joe. We have defensive bigs who block shots, protect the rim and run the floor. We have a great point guard. I mean, we have it all on paper. 

“We just have to translate that to the floor when the season starts.”