Jalen Green has been playing his best basketball as of late. In three straight games, he’s scored 30 points or more and achieved a career-high 33 in Friday night’s loss to the Sacramento Kings.
He’s been showing the signs of a true shooting guard and the points are coming in at the pace needed for an elite guard in the league. But is he a textbook shooting guard for today’s NBA?
His backcourt partner Kevin Porter Jr. isn’t a traditional point guard, which takes away from Green’s positional tradition as well.
But it wasn’t long ago that positional designations and roles were sacred law in the National Basketball Association. Seven feet tall? Stand in the paint and keep your arms up. No, you can’t shoot threes: what do we have a shooting guard for?
A series of unconventional decisions made by bright basketball minds revolutionized the sport. Mike D’Antoni recognized that having an extra shooter was more valuable than having an extra post-up option. Steve Kerr identified that Draymond Green should get more minutes at center than small forward, 6-8 or not.
What followed was a flood of think pieces about the death of the center. It turned out that those rumors were reminiscent of the ones about Mark Twain’s demise: greatly exaggerated.
Flashforward to 2021-22, and two of the three leading MVP candidates play the 5. The remaining candidate is Giannis Antetokounmpo. He may be the league’s first power forward/center/small forward/point guard hybrid, but the point remains: giants still rule the NBA.
The center position didn’t die: it evolved. The same could be said for roughly every position besides shooting guard.
The Houston Rockets helped make recent history
James Harden used to be viewed as a shooting guard. That is until he linked up with Mike D’Antoni, the previously mentioned mad scientist of basketball. They mutually decided he was a point guard.
Stephen Curry was changing everyone’s notion of what that position entailed at the same time. Suddenly, point guards were scoring. Lead ball-handlers that could create baskets for themselves and others found themselves en vogue. The Warriors/Rockets rivalry of the mid-2010s typified the evolution of that position. On the Rockets, we watched Harden pound the air out of the ball only to inevitably set up an optimal shot for either himself or a teammate. On the Warriors, we watched Curry destroy every notion of what an optimal shot was, sometimes with hardly a dribble.
So in review: centers and forwards evolved by developing guard skills, and point guards evolved by developing shooting guard skills.
Where does this leave the shooting guard?
The shooting guard is dead: long live the shooting guard
Frankly, in the dust. A perusal of the NBA’s leaders in Win Shares (WS) this season doesn’t bode well for lovers of the position. It’s dominated by centers and forwards, with a smattering of point guards. You’ve got to go all the way down to 18 to find a shooting guard (Devin Booker).
Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) tells the same story. There’s Devin Booker, leading all qualified off-guards once again at 18.
It’s not some aberration either. A look at last year’s leaderboard in both categories affirms our conclusion. Bradley Beal was the highest-ranked off-guard in WS at 40th, and Zach Lavine had the highest VORP at the position at 22nd.
Now that point guards are allowed to score first, the league’s top bucket-getters generally earn that positional designation. Teams want the ball in the hands of their best offensive player, whether they’re calling their number or their teammates’.
This leads me to one of two conclusions: either Jalen Green is a point guard, or he is the shooting guard messiah.
History repeats itself in Houston
With centers evolving back into a position to dominate the league, suddenly, the NBA resembles its former self in a sense. Granted, today’s big dominates differently, but it seems as if being tall is still an advantage in basketball.
That was the commonly held notion in 1984. So much so, that the Houston Rockets selected Hakeem Olajuwon with the first pick in the draft. In almost any year, that would have been the right decision.
Michael Jordan doesn’t enter the NBA most years.
At the time, conventional wisdom dictated that a guard couldn’t lead a team to a championship. We all saw how that went.
In the 2021 draft, the Rockets bucked conventional wisdom again: only this time, they did so by selecting the guard over the big man. Most big boards had Evan Mobley as the second overall pick. Rockets fans spent much of 2021-22 wondering if the team had blown a massive opportunity.
Since the All-Star break, and particularly over the last month, Jalen Green has proven that in fact, they gave themselves one.
Pick any sample size since the break, and the numbers place Green in a positive light. He’s averaging 21.8 points over his last 10 games while shooting 43.7% from the field and 42.0% from distance. He’s averaging 28.6 points over his last 5 games while shooting 45.3% from both the field and distance.
He has arrived. He has silenced virtually every doubt.
Can he rank among the league’s leaders in WS and VORP someday?
Can the Rockets phenom revive his position?
I don’t expect that Green will be a point guard. He’s as lethal off the ball as he is on it. He is a modern shooting guard, better suited to attack a defense after it thinks it's ready than set the offense up.
Assuming that he stays at the 2 spot, the question remains: can Jalen Green be an MVP candidate at a position that seldom yields them anymore?
The last time a pure off guard was receiving those kinds of accolades, it was Kobe Bryant. Can he be the best of his breed since the tragically late legend?
In order to do so, he’ll have to continue to evolve as a playmaker and a defender. Green’s shown both a willingness and ability to set up teammates when defenses pressure him. Leaning a little harder into that skill as his usage increases could pay dividends towards making him one of the league’s premier offensive weapons.
Defensively, Green has displayed strong instincts when it comes to creating plays from gambling. If he can add some muscle to his presently whispy frame, it may help him stay in front of his man (as well as convert more posterizing dunks).
If he can make those improvements, there’s nothing stopping Green from assuming the mantle of the best off-guard in the NBA.
He’ll have competition. Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards is on a similar trajectory, and we’ll see if Purdue’s Jaden Ivey makes the leap to point guard or not. Players like Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, and Zach LaVine are still young enough to improve too.
Subjectively, Green feels special. If his work ethic is as strong as it appears, who knows:
He might be the reason the shooting guard position finally evolves with the rest of the league.