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Draymond Green's 'will to win' is Michigan State's biggest advantage as its Final Four quest continues

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

PHOENIX – Draymond Green and Daniel West wouldn't shut up. The yelling ricocheted off every part of the bus, two overheated 12-year-old boys arguing about the AAU game they just lost. Their coach told them to stop. They refused. He asked again. Still nothing.

"So I sent them off the bus," Lou Dawkins said, "in the middle of the highway."

Guilt, along with some prodding from his wife, prompted Dawkins to return and rescue Green and West from walking three miles through Cocoa Beach, Fla., to their hotel – "and we was still fighting," West said.

Dawkins expected no less. He had known Green forever – to everyone in Saginaw, Mich., he was just "Day Day," the chubby kid who could hoop – and only one thing exceeded his stubbornness.

"There's always been that fire and drive to win, no matter where it was," Green said. "A lot of people don't take AAU serious. Whenever I'm playing, where there's a win or loss involved, I want to win.

"We weren't going to stop. He figured that out when he picked us back up. It was just that will to win. I don't think it'll ever go anywhere."

It certainly hasn't abated yet. More than anyone in this season's NCAA tournament, Green defines his team. Whatever Michigan State lacks in talent, it makes up for in toughness and intelligence, intangibles to which Green lends tangibility. He is, in coach Tom Izzo's words, "the perfect Spartan," and the first week of the tournament did nothing to dispel such an assertion.

Green dropped a triple-double in the Spartans' first game, spearheaded their offense in the second and fully expects to tear apart fourth-seeded Louisville in similar fashion as the top-seeded Spartans try to claw one step closer to the Final Four on Thursday night in a West Region semifinal.

Green's season-long breakout party has placed him in the upper echelon of Michigan State players, alongside Magic Johnson – a frequent tweeting buddy of Green's – and Mateen Cleaves. It's heady company for the kid who almost didn't end up at Michigan State – and who almost left after he did.

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The path from Saginaw to East Lansing was far more circuitous than a 65-mile drive. Green played for Dawkins in AAU ball, then at Saginaw High, where he and West often would sleep in the gym – partly because they embraced the gym-rat ethos, partly to avoid what surrounded them.

"We've been through a lot in life," West said from his hometown. "We're in Saginaw. Everyone tries to make it seem like it's bad with all the shootings and killings. You grow up quick here. I guess that's why we play like that. He's aggressive. He's got something to prove."

Green grew into the sort of player every coach covets: a big man with legitimate guard skills, from his handle to his shot to his court vision. That he took the big a little too far – Green carried 275 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame around the time of his recruitment – mattered little. Tubby Smith came after him, and with Michigan State already having secured power forward Delvon Roe, Green committed to Kentucky.

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Then Smith left Lexington, Izzo doubled up inside and Green decided to stay home. During his freshman season, when he played only 11 minutes per game, he complained to Dawkins, to his mother, to anyone who would listen. They encouraged him to stay – and, while he was at it, to sneak a look into the mirror every now and again.

Soon thereafter began the transformation of Green. He shed weight. He retooled his shot. He tightened up his dribbling. He complemented his outside game with new post moves.

"In terms of body, game, everything," Michigan State assistant Dwayne Stephens said, "he's changed more than anybody in the history of this program."

His teammates noticed. Green's weight loss inspired forward Derrick Nix, another big with great skills, to shed more than 40 pounds. His support for other sports at Michigan State – Green arranges team outings – showed he wasn't all bluster. A number of times this season, Spartans players received texts in the morning from Green telling them to show up 20 minutes early to practice so he could run a players-only meeting in which everyone gets a chance to talk.

"That's 'Day Day, ' " Spartans guard Brandon Wood said. "Sometimes I think he just wants to hear himself talk. Everybody knows he likes to talk."


"I will talk all day every day," Green admitted

And so it went during the Spartans' media availability Wednesday afternoon. After commanding the dais for 15 minutes, Green strode into the Spartans' locker room and found himself immediately cornered next to the bathroom. Never mind the activity going on behind him. Green shrugged it off and talked so everyone else didn't have to, a sliver of the leadership role he relishes.

"It's a 24/7/365 job," Green said. "You have to be on your P's and Q's at all times and make sure you're leading the right way. When you've got guys watching you and watching your every move, you've got to make sure you're setting the right example.

"That's the most important thing: being consistent. Everybody can lead for one day and take three off, but it's only the great leaders that can do it every single day."

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Green does try. He prefers assisting on baskets to scoring them. He soaks in wisdom Dawkins, now an assistant at Northern Illinois, sends via text. Then he dispenses it back to Dawkins.

"You wonder if leaders are born or made," Dawkins said. " 'Day Day' may have been blessed with both. Leadership at birth and developing it more up to now."

The fire and the drive – the things that mingled with inherent skill to birth a basketball Frankenstein's monster – haven't gone anywhere and aren't likely to anytime soon, either. Green is too close – to an NBA job that's all but guaranteed, to his third Final Four, to cementing a legacy that continues to bloom.

As much as Draymond Green has grown up – as perfect a Spartan as he may be – he's still the same kid from the back of the bus in Florida. Always, more than anything, wanting to win.

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