After the first practice with the USA Basketball Select Team, an exhausted Jalen Green sat in the corner of the Mendenhall Center, his legs wrapped in ice after a long day’s work.
A few minutes later, the intensity of Holmgren and Pritchard’s game had picked up, which was accompanied by an uptick in noise. Green looked up and saw his teammates for the week engaged in battle, his body quickly filling up with adrenaline.
It didn’t take long for him to decide he wanted in on the action, ripping the ice off and joining Holmgren and Pritchard for the next 45 minutes. It wasn’t in the same realm as some of the legendary sessions from past iterations of the team, but a fierce battle nonetheless.
“The competitive nature, the fight. He was excited to play,” select team assistant coach Jim Boylen told The Athletic. “He practiced hard and I thought he was really locked into what we were trying to do.”
Despite being part of a roster designed to scrimmage against the senior men’s group, Green’s time in Las Vegas this month with Team USA has been nothing but beneficial to his young career.
During the week in early August, the coaching staff — led by Orlando Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley — made a point to get the young players involved in a bevy of live pick-and-roll actions. In international basketball, it’s common for guards to reject ball screens and continue to survey the floor looking to make quick decisions.
Because the FIBA game is different than the NBA from a speed and tactical standpoint, the staff wanted to condition the select team — and particularly their ball handlers — with situations where players hadn’t used a dribble yet. And Mosley specifically wanted to see how Green functioned off the ball alongside the Pistons’ Cade Cunningham in the backcourt but also pushed for him to get valuable reps as a primary playmaker.
Since entering the league in 2021, Green’s scoring has never been questioned. The overall efficiency has ebbed and flowed during his two seasons but he’s had several explosive games and has shown the ability to take over contests with his combination of speed, power and athleticism. The talent is there.
But as a ball handler, playmaker and decision-maker, the 21-year-old is still developing. At a glance, it’s easy to see a year-to-year improvement. Green had the ball in his hands more in his second season than as a rookie and as a result, put in more situations where he had to make a play for himself or for others. It’s not perfect, partially due to the mess of an offense the Rockets have had since he’s been in the league but he’s not exactly blameless, either.
With veteran point guard Fred VanVleet entering the picture as assumed lead ballhandler, it’s important that Green continues to improve when the ball is in his hands. VanVleet’s usage last season (22.5) was similar to Kevin Porter Jr.’s (23.9) and other starting guards like Josh Giddy (23.9) and D’Angelo Russell (22.5) who functioned alongside another ballhandler.
VanVleet loves to conduct the orchestra but his game slides more toward the modern side than the traditional pound-the-air-out-of-the-ball types of the past. There’s an obvious Pascal Siakam usage angle to this but VanVleet isn’t immune to giving up the ball in the half court and relocating. In other words, Green might not dominate the ball as much as he did last season, but it’s still going to be in his hands a good amount and he’ll need to make the right plays. Similarly, he’ll also need to continue his growth as an off-the-ball attacker.
“I wanted him to play on the ball, too, and that’s where I think Cade (Cunningham) was very willing to move off a bit to give him some opportunities,” Mosley told The Athletic. “But him playing off the ball was good — coming off pindowns, coming off screens, keeping the defense honest on the backside movement. Just being able to play without having to come back and get the ball, more along the lines of letting it find him. I think he did a really good job of not chasing it, being able to find opportunities to create for his teammates. And whenever the ball did find his hands, he was a live go.”
As stated earlier, last season’s team made an effort to get Green on the ball, something stated publicly by former head coach Stephen Silas on several occasions. There were a few pockets in Houston’s offense where the movement was crisp and Green was put in areas where he could maximize his talent in short windows.
But a lot of times, when defenses pressured him and he couldn’t immediately generate a full head of steam, chao
s ensued. Green played in nine more games in his second season (67 to 76) but committed 65 more turnovers (200 to 135). When it comes to something as gray as turnovers, juxtaposing two seasons can get a bit tricky because of all the outside factors that go into losing possession but more often than not, they boil down to preventable mistakes.
This summer, he committed himself to growth. Team sources said the staff was particularly pleased with the young guard’s conditioning and fitness level, especially in early August when players are still in the midst of vacationing. He’s trained in California with other NBA players, sessions which head coach Ime Udoka has frequented. Green arrived at Team USA camp stronger, fitter and most importantly, smarter. Word from Vegas was he picked up the system quickly, was extremely coachable and was an eager learner.
“I really think his level of focus was good, trying to figure out exactly what was needed for the team,” Mosley said. “We talked about him playing the point for a little bit and his ability to designate and initiate the offense as well as moving without the basketball. I think he was really focused on that. Challenging him to sit down and guard defensively and he embraced that. It was good to see.”
With the select team, Cunningham was the primary ball handler but with Mosley’s instructions, there were possessions where Green would initially bring the ball up the floor and give it up before getting it back. The coaching staff wanted Green in these situations where “the ball becomes live” and emphasized them when scrimmaging with the senior team. His speed and explosiveness were unlike anyone else on the select team’s roster.
“That’s something we emphasize to do against the senior team but also something we thought he was elite at,” Boylen said. “It helped him, helped us and the senior team get ready.”
With young players, it takes time and repetition, especially with ball handlers. It’s not perfect. After escaping Austin Reaves’ chase, Green had an open look after a nifty step back and should have pulled the trigger. But even after allowing Reaves to get solid defensive positioning, Green continues to probe and eventually finds Holmgren open on the wing from driving and kicking. It’s all a work in progress but the potential is there. Becoming more comfortable and confident with the ball will only make his assimilation with VanVleet easier once training camp rolls around.
“I think coach Ime’s going to do a fantastic job communicating that with him,” Mosley said. “And I think in a leader that you have in Fred, that’s going to help a ton because when he plays off the basketball — back screening, moving and cutting — once he gets that ball in his hands, you’re not playing against closeouts. I think that’s going to work to his advantage a ton.
Source: The Athletic