More than anything else, Donte Greene makes you think.
We’re talking about a 6’11″ small forward. 6-freaking-11. Same height as both candidates to start for the Kings at center. Taller than the projected starting power forward. Taller than any small forward in the league, sans the occasional minutes Lamar Odom spends at the 3. Taller than anyone I can remember playing the position since Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett were listed as such earlier in the decade (remember that? That was cool).
And yet, the role the Kings need Donte to fill is rarely bestowed upon players of his physical attributes.. They don’t need him to play in the post, or rebound the ball – they have plenty of guys to do that. They need him to knock down outside shots and guard the opposition’s best perimeter player every night. Jobs more typically bestowed upon wings of the 6’6″ish variety. It’s just that when you’re the Kings, you’re 6’6″ish guard is your lead guard.
The fact that those attributes are what they are makes you wonder about the whole positional revolution thesis almost as much as Evans does. Donte’s would-be bigmanny height lacks any true semblance of bigmanny muscle and no bigmanny game. Not that there aren’t any other perimeter power forwards in the league, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any power forward who took 1.8 threes out of 4.3 shots a game while making just 26%, such as Donte shot in 08-09, or who boasted consecutive rebound rates of 6.9 and 8.2. Mainly because power forwards with those stats don’t get off the bench.
But as a small forward? The concept of a 3 so… well, the word big doesn’t apply much to Donte, but… long, is one that is hard to accept. For some reason, small forwards are defined as 6’5″ to 6’9″ish and that’s it. And when you have a guy like Donte who can even play some of the 2 (though I wouldn’t recommend it), it gives you a lot of options. The same options that make the positional revolution so intriguing.
In the post MJ era, we have almost forgotten a very basic rule in basketball – in a game where the objective is to place the ball inside a little hoop that is 10 feet high, being as tall as possible goes a very long way towards winning. It’s why a good big man will always be more important than a good shooting guard. Just look at how the Lakers have been dominating teams. Sure, Kobe Bryant is a once-in-an-era type of player, but how far does that team go without the three headed monster of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom? Just re-watch the Finals, and tell me what bothered Rajon Rondo the most: his inability to get past Kobe, or the three giants that were waiting for him at the rim?
Donte isn’t nearly the player that Bynum, Pau or Odom are, but he has the potential to have an effect along the same concept. Just look two years into the future, at a lineup featuring Tyreke at point, Omri and Donte at the wings, and Cousins and Dalembert sharing the frontcourt. Pretty stupid, right? Tyreke would remain as the only ball handler on the squad, both Omri and Donte can’t play the 2, and both Cousins and Dalembert are too slow to defend 4s. But forget what you know about traditional lineups and stick with me here, if only for the purspose of the exercise. If Omri and Donte can both improve their outside shooting enough to spread the offense (certainly a realistic goal for Omri, and not too much of a stretch for Donte if he improves as much as he did last season), how do teams score on you? That lineup has the combined wingspan of a flock of eagles! They could high five from different ends of the court!
Obviously, Tyreke has a lot to do with the option of such versatility – there are very few 6’6” guys who can play point in this league. His offensive set is entirely 2-like, and he is quick enough to guard your traditional 2s. Sure, he can’t help with handling the ball, and smaller, quicker guys such as Dwyane Wade and Monta Ellis might pose problems. But how many teams have those guards? And how many teams can have a guy who offers the possibility of such crazy mismatches and defensive units?
That’s what makes Donte such an interesting prospect going forward. He’s already the best perimeter defender on this squad. Is he consistent in his shut down abilities? No. That’s why the Kings signed Antoine Wright this summer. But he’s certainly shown flashes. I don’t think any Kings fan will soon forget the incredible job Donte did against Kobe last season in those heartbreaking losses. You might also remember he wasn’t too shabby at staying with Carmelo Anthony.
Well, that’s what you can do when you have the length – both height and wingspan – of a center, but have the skills – both the speed and the hops – of a shooting guard. It’s a wonderful combination to have, on both sides of the court. And while on offense, you can’t get along with physical attributes alone (pour one out for Gerald Green), on defense those tools go very very far. Obviously, one also needs things like footwork, smarts, and discipline are key to a good defender – the same things that enable largely unathletic players to be good defenders – but the physical tools are so, so important, that just by having them and the right mentality you could be great.
This is what the Kings’ coaching staff has to be explaining to Donte on a daily basis. Sure, he needs to work on offense as well (I’m getting there shortly). But he has the unique tools to become not only a lockdown individual defender, but a key cog in a lockdown unit. He’s already shown the willingness to take on that role, and has performed quite ably. But if he takes the next step? He could be much more than “that guy traded for Ron Artest”.
Moving on to the “put the ball in the basket” part of the game, Donte should be able to pose a constant mismatch. I say should, because the physical advantage he holds over nearly every small forward in the game is mostly negated by his style of play and lack of muscle. In an ideal world, Donte would pick up another 20-30 pounds of bulk while keeping his athleticism (note: he did the first part without apparently keeping the athleticism), thus enabling him to take his man to the post time and time again.
Luckily for the Kings, what they need out of Donte has nothing to do with his individual best case scenario. Sure, Donte’s body could make him dominant as a post-up guy/driver, but the Kings already have enough guys living in the paint. The Kings need Donte to do what he likes to do best – stand outside and stroke that three-point shot.
In that, Donte is indeed a work in progress, but the progress is certainly there. After making only 26% of his threes and 31% of his long twos his rookie year, Donte bounced up to respectable figures of 37.7% and 42%. More importantly, Donte abandoned the idea of becoming only a shooter, taking much more shots at the rim (2.1 this season, 1.0 last season) to keep defenders honest.
Of course, the Kings will probably want a little more cosistency than what Donte showed, with his monthly splits seeing his 3 point percentages ranging from 25% in December to 50% in February. But that’s the price you pay when you’re a youngster trying to carve out your niche, and it’s something that is bound to get better as Donte does.
But the steady improvement from his rookie season shows that it’s possible.This is a player whose main impact in his rookie season was in “who was the worst player in the league” discussions. Suddenly, those discussions turned into “should he start?”. If he makes a similar jump this year, the official Donte discussion topic of July 2011 could be frightningly optimistic.