Erick Green is showing NBA potential for Olympiacos

Oct 22, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Erick Green (11) dribbles the ball during the first half against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 22, 2015; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Erick Green (11) dribbles the ball during the first half against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports /

One month ago, Olympiacos guard Vassilis Spanoulis went down with a strained adductor muscle in his thigh. Spanoulis, who Rockets fans may remember from his brief stint with the team in 2006-07, is a Euroleague legend. He’s was Euroleague MVP in 2012-2013, and he’s won Final Four MVP three times. Even at 36, he’s been one of the best playmakers in Euroleague this season, and Olympiacos’s offense has at times hinged on his probing ability. How Olympiacos would contend without him was a bit of a mystery. But it wasn’t, because they had an answer waiting in the wings: Erick Green.

Green took the reigns in the three Spanoulis absences, injecting some life into what’s been a slow and post-centric offense. He destroyed Unics Kazan with a 25-point, 3-rebound effort in 34 minutes. He paced the team in scoring in the Fenerbahce game with 17 points, and helped to shut down Fenerbahce’s point guards in a tight 67-64 loss. And then against Maccabi, he posted 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals in a win. These three games represent three of Green’s four best games of the year, per Euroleague’s Player Index Rating. With Green at the helm, Olympiacos was able to play at a faster pace, get their many pick-and-roll bigs more involved, and averaged a strong 79.7 points per game.

Erick Green’s basketball career path has been anything but linear. The former Virginia Tech guard was selected with the 46th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Jazz, who traded his rights to Denver for the rights to Rudy Gobert. He didn’t make the 2013-14 Nuggets, and instead spent what would have been his rookie season playing for Siena in Italy. There, he showed off hints of what he could be in the future: Averages of 11.4 points per game on 47.7 percent shooting, 1.7 rebounds and 0.8 steals per game showed a potential future as a quick-burst scoring guard who had defensive potential at 6-foot-4.

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He made the Nuggets the following season, averaging 3.4 points per game in 43 appearances with Denver. The following year he found himself a casualty of the Nuggets’ depth in the backcourt, cut after just three appearances. A stint with Reno, where he averaged a ridiculous 25.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game earned him a 10-day shot with the Jazz, but that was a temporary fit due to injury issues at point guard in Utah. With no real suitors this fall, he worked his way back to Olympiacos to back up a legend.

Most of Olympiacos’s games this year have not featured Green in the way this stretch has. Normally playing behind Spanoulis, he’s averaged about 20.5 minutes per game in Euroleague this season, and he’s fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 10.3 points per game. Green and Spanoulis rarely share the floor, so instead his time is spent in bench-heavy second quarter units that are focused on locking down the opponent. While Spanoulis, Georgios Printezis, and Kostas Papanikolaou anchor starting units, Green’s time is most spent with Spurs draft-and-stash Nikola Milutinov, Dominic Waters, and Matt Lojeski in lineups focused on dominating athletically. Green is just one piece of the puzzle for Olympiacos. Heck, he’s not even the best NBA prospect on the squad, as that honor likely goes to former UNLV big man Khem Birch.

Even in his more regimented role, the 25-year old Green is showing why he may have another shot at the NBA in his future. Green’s biggest NBA asset is his defensive intensity, which has made him a perfect fit in Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s always aggressive scheme. At 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, Green has the frame to be a solid point guard defender at the NBA level, and he uses that length and impeccable timing to harrass opposing point guards.

Green’s steal rate of 1.85 is solid, and he does a good job of cutting off penetration and forcing mistakes, both on and off the ball. He was the biggest reason that Fenerbahce guards Bobby Dixon and Kostas Sloukas combined to shoot 3-of-20 from the field in the Fenerbahce game, suffocating Sloukas’s ability to drive and rotating well to cut off clean looks for Dixon. His anticipation skills are strong, and can make him a threatening off-ball defender, as well.

Green’s biggest concern from his Nuggets tenure was strength, as his light 185-pound frame makes it difficult for him to body up stronger guards. While European hoops don’t give him the best comparison to NBA-level strength, he’s done well when matched up in bad switches. It’s a little out of the frame here, but watch this example, as he battles with former Wizards’ forward Chris Singleton for position in a Greek League game against Panathinaikos, and comes away with a steal:

Green can effectively defend point guards, as he has the size and quickness to chase in the pick-and-roll and to handle isolations. The question for NBA teams has been if he is strong enough to switch and defend larger players, who can take advantage of his slight build. This season has shown that he has potential to do that, and if he can, he can be a valuable option for someone looking to strengthen their perimeter defense.

Green also offers value as an isolation scorer. This is where a majority of his possessions go for Olympiacos, and he’s been very good at scoring both around the rim and from midrange. This is also where Green was most commonly used with Denver. Watching film of his time there, one major red flag presents. See how many times Green gets to the rim here against the Warriors in 2015.

Green struggled to get by NBA defenders, due to his lack of shake and first-step quickness. He has shown occasional prowess with many of the shot types that players use to compensate for this – floaters, pull-ups, and step back jumpers. But that lack of rim finishing would limit his ability to be an effective NBA isolationist.

In Greece, this has been a mixed bag. Green has had occasional success attacking the basket out of spread pick-and-roll sets, where he can find more space to attack in a straight line.

But when faced with an obstacle at the rim, Green rarely challenges his opponent. He still doesn’t have the strength to absorb contact and finish, and instead will go to his well-developed floater game.

This is the reason for Green averaging 4.1 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, a very low number for a high-usage guard. He rarely will get a clean look at the rim, somewhat by choice, and somewhat because of his lack of quick burst rarely allows him to get by a defender cleanly. Watch this play, where Green can’t turn the corner on Bogdan Bogdanovic and has to set up an isolation:

Or this, where Unics swallows him up on a simple pick-and-roll:

Despite these struggles to consistently get to the rim, Green has been an efficient overall scorer, shooting 46.1 percent from the field. Playing with Printezis has clearly helped him, because he compensates for his game with a wide array of post-up style countermoves that make him incredibly efficient in the supposed no-man’s land, from 3-10 feet from the basket. His touch is great around contact, and he has one of Europe’s most feathery floaters.

He also has the awareness in traffic to sense when opponents are overplaying him. This type of move is a frequent weapon in his arsenal — drive, sense the help coming, stop on a dime, and hit a spin move into an open floater:

Green may not have the straight-line explosion to get to the rim, but his lateral shake is excellent, and that helps him create a variety of open shots one-on-one. Olympiacos loves to get him the ball coming off a screen along the baseline, and then let him work one-on-one from the perimeter, where he can either create these looks inside or generate an open 18-foot shot off separation, like he does against Furkan Korkmaz here:

It may appear that Green plays exclusively in the game’s least efficient areas. That’s true, to an extent, as it appears that he’ll always be most comfortable in the midrange with the ball in his hands. But he’s found ways to add efficiency to his game this season, which previously weren’t consistent. The biggest of these is 3-point shooting, where he has hit 43.9 percent on 132 attempts across all competitions this year. This has been a big work in progress for him, since his college days — he was a career 34 percent shooter at Virginia Tech, and he shot a poor 29.8 percent on 3s for Denver in 2014-15. But his release is becoming more consistent, and he’s been a reliable catch-and-shoot weapon in Euroleague this year.

His form still isn’t perfect, as he kicks his legs forward and doesn’t generate efficient lift from his lower body. But his release has been improved, and he’s most active from the corners, which allows Olympiacos to use him off ball with Spanoulis or when Lojeski handles the playmaking. Green has also shown good instincts as a cutter, and this is where a majority of his finishing at the rim has come this year.

Green presents an interesting case for NBA teams this summer. He should be a capable defender off the bench for a team, and his shooting ability could mean that you can let him be the focal point of the offense for 5-10 minutes per game. The question is if he has the secondary capabilities on offense, between his cutting and 3-point improvement, to still have value in starter-heavy lineups. He clearly does at the Euroleague level, but an NBA team will need to bank on his shooting allowing him to be a Matthew Dellavedova-like combo guard, where he can defend up top and play off the ball for stretches on offense.

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This season has made it clear that Green is a valuable player. He’s comfortably been able to be a supporting piece and primary load-bearer for one of Europe’s top teams this year. At 25-years old with an NBA-friendly contract, this summer is likely his best shot to get back to the NBA. With backup point guard help at a premium this summer, don’t be surprised if Green follows former Virginia Tech teammate Malcolm Delaney to the states after a successful tour in the Eastern Hemisphere.