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UNC’s Danny Green takes strange path to San Antonio Spurs’ starting lineup

Danny Green is quite a shooter. You don’t make 16 of 23 3-pointers in the NBA Finals without skills.

But that might not be the most important element in his journey from decent player at North Carolina to starter for a San Antonio Spurs team that leads visiting Miami 2-1 entering Thursday’s game. Green is a really good listener, even when told things that aren’t fun to hear.

He was having trouble keeping a job in the NBA. Green had been cut by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that drafted him in the second round in 2009. He played in Slovenia, bounced around two Development League teams and was cut twice by the Spurs.

So his college coach, Roy Williams, called Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to inquire about the problem. Popovich might be the bluntest coach in basketball. Williams isn’t far off Pop’s pace. This was not going to be a validating conversation.

“Roy and I teamed up and gave him a big dose of honesty,” Popovich told reporters during the playoffs. “We both got on him pretty good, just being honest, to let him know where he stood.”

What was said?

“It was all about his head,” Popovich recalled. “About his approach, his aggressiveness and confidence.”

Williams felt Green could handle the criticism, telling Popovich not to hold back. Green had been through worse. His father, back on Long Island, was incarcerated while Green played at North Carolina.

This happened at the end of Green’s freshman year. His father was arrested as part of a drug bust that reportedly netted 400 pounds of cocaine and $5 million in cash. Green’s father eventually accepted a plea bargain that resulted in 22 months of jail time.

Danny Green Sr. had raised Danny and two siblings as a single father. Not much good was happening to that family in that span and Danny’s performance reflected that his sophomore season (2006-07). A freshman class of Ty Lawson, Brandan Wright and Wayne Ellington ate up the minutes.

With financial pressure mounting at home, Green considered turning pro after his junior season. That would have been a mistake; NBA scouts were less than impressed. So he came back for his senior season and built enough of a resume to be drafted in the second round.

Green played all of 20 games as a Cavalier; he was better known for his sideline dance moves than anything else. That started the spiral through the minors and Europe. He played sporadically for the Spurs in the 2010-11 season. He could make some 3s, but there was nothing else compelling enough to keep him on the roster.

So Williams interceded and Popovich delivered the uncomfortable truth about Green’s fading career. Green got it, changing his approach. It helped his cause when Manu Ginobili broke his hand last season, opening up minutes. Shooting 44 percent from 3-point range and averaging 9.1 points earned Green a starting spot.

Ask Williams about all this and he explains that Green is the definitive complementary player – the guy who blends in and feeds off the stars. The Spurs have their stars in Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. They needed Green not to be afraid when the ball hit his hands off a double-team.

They needed a good listener. They found one.

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