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Jalen Green's Fresno upbringing motivates him to prove people wrong, just not in Detroit

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Editor's note: The author was born and raised in Fresno, California.

LAS VEGAS — Most now know about Jalen Green, the young prodigy the Houston Rockets selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2021 NBA draft. But very few know about where the 19-year-old guard is from.

Green grew up in Fresno, California, located in the Central Valley with a population of approximately 1 million in Fresno County. When people think of the Golden State, Los Angeles typically comes to mind. After that, the Bay Area and then probably San Diego.

Ever since Green burst onto the scene as a nationally ranked player his sophomore year in high school, his travels in the AAU circuit have always come with one constant question.

“It was more like ‘Where is Fresno?’ type of thing,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “‘What is Fresno?’ It was never disrespectful. I always felt like I had respect wherever I went, but it was just like, ‘Where are you from? What is Fresno?’ Nobody really knew where Fresno was or how hard Fresno is.”

Houston Rockets rookie Jalen Green was shaped by his upbringing in Fresno, California, and wants to send a message that he's the best rookie in the 2021 draft class. (Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets rookie Jalen Green was shaped by his upbringing in Fresno, California, and wants to send a message that he's the best rookie in the 2021 draft class. (Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)

How Fresno shaped Jalen Green

Gang activity and poverty have always been embedded in the city, but there has been an uptick in crime and murders over the last decade. According to Fresno’s ABC 30 in March, “Fresno's homicide rate per 100,000 people is among the highest. It's more than four times that of LA, San Diego, San Jose or San Francisco, and higher than the next four largest California cities, too, apart from Oakland.”

The city isn’t small enough to be classified as a “where everybody knows your name” town, but it’s small enough to where one may know the name of a close relative, and depending on the activities involved, that close proximity could potentially be dangerous.

Greg Day — better known by his stage name “Diego Redd” — provided a brief synopsis of Fresno. He is one of the city’s legendary hip-hop artists and entrepreneurs born and raised in the town.

“Fresno is a really close-knit and loving community,” Day told Yahoo Sports. “However, there is a whole world out there that exists that many here have never, and will never, experience. And if you don’t step outside or haven’t been prepared to leave Fresno, that’s when you can get into trouble. Also being from Fresno, if you get comfortable, it can hinder you and hold you back later. The pros are it’s family oriented. The cons are you can develop a tunnel-vision way of thinking. There’s so much more in the world, and it’s important that we know that.”

So when Green is explaining his city to his peers, here is his best description.

“I say Fresno is a small city, it’s small-minded but with a lot of good people,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “It's really crazy out there. I always mention that part because people just don’t know about Fresno. They think it’s some nice little city, but really it’s not.”

Green became a star while attending Fresno’s San Joaquin Memorial High School for his first three years before transferring his senior year to Prolific Prep in Napa, California. His social media accounts grew exponentially, and it made going out in public difficult. To avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he occupied a space that felt safest to him.

“I think my support system kept me from [the street stuff] and really just locking in on the main thing,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “My sophomore year, I knew I wanted to play basketball and do something with it in the NBA and I just kept the main thing the main thing and stayed in the gym. I chose my friends wisely. But I was just in the gym the whole time.”

Green ready to send message in the NBA

Sandwiched right in between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Fresno does come with a bit of an inferiority complex which creates a natural aggressive edge with a chip on one’s shoulder. That aggressive edge and chip can manifest itself within legal — and unfortunately — illegal proceedings.

Fresnans understand they are not a big city, but they demand your respect for their contributions to California from agriculture, to education, to their music, and to the athletes they produce.

Being overlooked is not taken too well in those parts.

It’s likely why Green hasn’t forgotten about the Detroit Pistons, who bypassed him and took Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 overall draft pick. Green, who spent last season with the G League Ignite, worked out for only two teams prior to the draft: Houston and Detroit.

“I wanted to be the No. 1 pick, but as for the location, I didn't want to be in Detroit,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “I felt a lot more comfortable in Houston. It felt like a real homey environment. With Detroit, it felt like I was just going back to the G League bubble, and I just got out of the bubble. That’s pretty much what it was.

“In the [G League] bubble, I didn’t really have anything to do but just stay in the gym. I didn’t have any time to get away for myself. The only time I had to get away for myself was in my apartment. That’s what it felt like in Detroit. I wouldn’t be stepping outside in Detroit. There are not many things you can do in Detroit like that. You’re going to stay in the gym and then go back to your apartment.”

The Rockets and Pistons squared off last week in a marquee summer league game featuring Green and Cunningham. Houston won comfortably 111-91, with Green leading all scorers with 25 points and Cunningham finishing with 20 points.

It may not have been an official game, but Green definitely used the exhibition to send a message.

“Every time I step on the floor, I always think that I have something to prove to whoever is in those stands,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “There are a lot of people who will hate on me, have their opinions about me whether I do good or bad. I’m just thinking about that when I step on the floor. I’m going to prove everybody wrong.”

That’s Fresno for you. Proving people wrong is the DNA of the city.

Only a handful of players born or raised in Fresno have gone on to play in the NBA: Cliff Pondexter (1975-78), Bruce Bowen (1996-2009), DeShawn Stevenson (2000-13), Chris Jeffries (2002-04), Brook Lopez (2008-present), Robin Lopez (2008-present), Quincy Pondexter (2010-19) and Greg Smith (2012-16).

Green has a chance to be the best player to ever come out of the city, but most importantly, he has a chance at being one of the best in the game if he continues to develop.

The high-jumping 6-foot-5 guard is ready for the 2021-22 season. Having dominated summer league, his sights are set for his next accomplishment: Rookie of the Year.

“I need it. I feel like I’m the best player in the class,” Green told Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t go No. 1, so I’m going to go get the Rookie of the Year.”

Houston's Jalen Green drives against Detroit's Cade Cunningham during a matchup of the top two draft picks at the 2021 NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Aug. 10, 2021. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Houston's Jalen Green drives against Detroit's Cade Cunningham during a matchup of the top two draft picks at the 2021 NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Aug. 10, 2021. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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