OAKLAND — When NBA teams interview prospective draft picks, many of their questions are really the same question, asked over and over in different ways: Who are you?
When Draymond Green went through that wringer in 2012, he kept hearing a different query: What are you?
“They used to ask me, like, are you a three?” Green said after a recent Warriors shootaround. “And my answer was always no, I’m not a three. Because you take away some of the things I can do as a four-man if you just make me a three. And if you make me a four you can take away some of the things I can do as a three. So don’t limit me, just let me play. Put me on the floor, I’ll figure it out.”
The NBA executives and coaches were speaking the common numerical code of their league. For several decades, they have broken down players into five classic positions. The point guard is the 1, the shooting guard is the 2, the small forward is the 3, the power forward is the 4, the center is the 5.
But Green and other NBA players are increasingly challenging that taxonomy, defying the desire of basketball fundamentalists to place them in one of the five boxes.
“I’ve just never followed the guideline, you know?” Green said. “I think people create whatever guideline they want, and expect you to follow. And they say that’s right. I’ve never really agreed with that in my life.”
Granted, there have always been basketball players who blurred the positional boundaries. In fact, there was a time when the five slots were not set in stone. When Jerry West and Gail Goodrich played together for the Lakers in the 1960s and again in the early 1970s, which was the point guard and which was the shooting guard? No one seemed to care much as they made three consecutive all-star games as a tandem.
Ever since, there have been genre benders. Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley played clear roles but looked wrong for the parts. Scottie Pippen and Kevin Garnett had skill sets that were hard to pin down. And teams occasionally shifted guys around in bigger or smaller lineups.
“I mean, Don Nelson invented small ball, Steve Kerr didn’t,” said Eddie Johnson, a 17-year NBA veteran and sweet-shooting scorer who now hosts “NBA Today” on SiriusXM NBA Radio. “Small ball has been around forever, just not as prevalent as now. I played on the Phoenix Suns in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and we went small all the time. The fast pace has been around. They took Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) out of the lineup for the Lakers, and they went small.”
But through the 1990s and 2000s, the 1-2-3-4-5 system was dominant. Players entering the NBA were asked to pick a number, any number.
Green credits his maternal uncle, Bennie Babers, for unshackling him from this restrictive system. Green played center as a young boy, but Babers insisted he learn every position, and every skill. At each successive step of competition — high school, college at Michigan State, the Warriors — Green had to convince his coaches to let him do more than rebound and post up.