Nearly one year ago, Javonte Green, the final player to make the Celtics’ roster, entered Boston’s rotation against the Mavericks after Gordon Hayward broke his hand. He finished 4-of-8 from the field off Boston’s bench, including a three-point layup in the fourth quarter that keyed a 10-point win. Jaylen Brown praised his new high-flying teammate after the game, saying he’d leave the dunking to the youth now. Green was 26 then, Brown 22.
Brown stood and smiled as the pool of beat reporters laughed at his realization. Green turned 27 in July, which Brown won’t do until 2024. Brown was a lottery pick in 2016 after just one season at Cal; Green played four years at Radford and three more in Europe before getting his shot in the NBA.
Green beat out Max Strus (an undrafted shooting 4 out of DePaul who signed a two-year deal heading into training camp), Tremont Waters, and fan favorite Tacko Fall in a long-ago Summer League. Green immediately became an early Brad Stevens favorite, filling depth minutes with flashy finishes and efficiency in November and he’ll have a chance to remain whether with Boston (he’s signed to a non-guaranteed $1.52 million deal) or another team in 2021. It’s been a long journey for Green and one that was never guaranteed to end in the big leagues.
Former Celtic Bryant Stith oversaw Green’s high school development and injury recovery at Brunswick in Lawrenceville, Virginia. He surmised what’s now infamously known as “load management” for Green along with his doctors. Green was struggling to come back from a stress fracture in his back. He was then a high school junior who played quarterback in the fall, point guard in the winter, and center field in the spring.
“I couldn’t really do anything, because it was my back,” Green said. “Every time I did something, my back used to tighten up.”
Stith knew Green could lead Brunswick to a state championship in 2010, but refused to capitalize on a young athlete’s future for momentary personal gain. He approached Green’s aunt and uncle, who Green moved in with at 12, after playing him on a two weeks on, two weeks off schedule, suggesting a shut down and physical therapy before his senior year.
“I’m very big on rest,” Stith told CelticsBlog. “I played 11 years in the NBA. I know the toll that it took on my body. I had two sons that played alongside Javonte and I was very cognizant of how much they played and I managed their activity because you see so many high level basketball players and high school athletes go from one event to the next event, 365 days, and they don’t give their bodies a chance to rest and ultimately their bodies just say enough and it breaks down. You see so many young athletes who had so much promise never fulfill that, because they didn’t have an adult to say enough.”
Green tore through each sports season at Brunswick after moving across the state, becoming “our Lamar Jackson,” as Stith remembered. Green’s gifted athleticism allowed him to run the read-pass option and shake defenders as QB. He grew from 5’11 as a freshman to 6’41⁄2 as a senior, drawing 2,000 people into Lawrenceville’s tiny gym and commanding a traveling party for road games, and his basketball career came into focus.
An ailing back could not keep Green down. He completed simple one and two-handed dunks as a junior, and while recovering in the summer, he experimented with more complicated slams.
“Something hit me,” he said, after mastering the windmill, the 360, and a between-the-legs flush all while wearing a cast.
Load management allowed Green to finish his high school career in all three seasons, though his lack of AAU experience left him with a football offer at James Madison and no Division I basketball prospects. Stith and Green came up with a plan to send his highlight tapes to various coaches and Green felt the sport chose him when a late hoops offer from Radford arrived.
“He was confused because so many people were pulling him in so many different directions,” Stith said. “He was just looking for somebody to give him some advice. I told Javonte--we call him ‘Woo’--I said, ‘look, whatever you decide to do, you’re going to be successful.’”
Radford head coach Mike Jones had just accepted the job after a successful assistant stint at VCU. He filled out his coaching staff with JD Byers, a St. Francis assistant that received Green’s tape. A handwritten note attached from Stith stood out to Jones and he included it among the finalists. The footage was grainy, so Jones needed to rewind to be certain he saw it correctly.
In live game action, Green pulled off a between-the-legs dunk.
“There’s no way he just did that,” Jones thought at the time. “I didn’t believe he really did it, but looking back on it he probably did that and a whole bunch of other stuff. The athleticism was very apparent.”
Green visited Radford on the last possible day to join campus and committed. He formed a workout partnership with Byers closer to home in Lawrenceville and Jones set out to develop refined skills around his freakish finishing abilities. Jones knew that Green’s three-sport background would allow him to play through pain, and he’d need to. He couldn’t exactly offer a scholarship to a player he could only play half the time. That mindset would inform the rest of Green’s career.
At a Celtics practice in New York in December, he said that days off felt like he was giving a competitor an upper hand. He became Jones’ only player to never miss a game or practice in four years, breaking the school’s single season and all-time steals record, landing him a professional career in Spain, Italy, and Germany.
“He always had a little bit of back trouble,” Jones said. “I initially thought it was just when guys are out of shape, their lower back hurts, but he dealt with it for part of his career ... I think (load management is) complete bull. It’s the new generation. They maybe don’t quite have the same mentality toward practice like in the past. Back in the day, you didn’t miss practice, you just didn’t miss practice, you certainly didn’t miss a game ... if you have practice on the schedule, you should be there laced up and ready to go.”
Green wasn’t exactly an everyday player for the Celtics, but when he did play, fans never missed his dunking showcases. He threw down double-clutch reverses, slammed through defenders, caught alley-oops with each hand. “Woo” cut baseline, climbed the ladder on put backs like a center, threw it back over his head, and windmilled sideways.
It’s the beauty of basketball, that the visual artistry of a single skillset can place an otherwise unheralded player in the same breath as legends.
Jones believes only Michael Jordan and Zion Williamson dunk more in the half court than Javonte Green. In Green’s first year with the Celtics, he flushed 18 slams in the regular season for 28.5% of his makes, comparable to the team’s 6’9 center Daniel Theis, who made 33.6% of his field goals on dunks. Between Green, Robert Williams III, and Brown, the Celtics formed their greatest dunk roster in franchise history.
It’s not difficult to imagine Green drawing the attention his 7’5 teammate overshadowed him with when the Celtics emptied the bench late in games, but Green shined most among the team’s youth in a starter-less game to close the regular season against the Wizards. He dropped 23 points, shot 3-for-9 on three, and runners through contact in the lane.
Green worked on those areas throughout the year, before right knee surgery in August finally grounded him. He returned to the active roster by the end of the Eastern Conference Finals, and now waits to see if he showed enough in his rookie season to not fall victim to Boston’s roster crunch. Green’s Celtics tenure may end when the league determines guaranteed contract and option deadlines, but given interest from the Thunder, Trail Blazers, and Mavericks around the time Boston signed him, he should find an NBA home in 2021.
“I’ve always thought that whatever team he plays on, whatever level he plays on, he always finds a way to rise to the top. He’s just one of those guys.” Jones said. Fitting words for one of the Celtics’ highest flyers in years.