The Draymond Generation: Why undersized bruisers are ideal in today's NBA

Go to law school, they said. The man could argue. Can argue. He was doughy, barely cracked 6-foot-6. But the only case he wanted to make was for his value on the court.

Draymond Green: representing the defense.

His first case was Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who didn’t pay him mind until he was a senior, despite Saginaw — where Green scowled around and defended all comers — being just 65 miles away. Then came his teammates. Going into the summer of his freshman year, Green could hardly lift 135 pounds. He threw up the first time he worked out with the team. One day, he huffed and puffed through cardio before his first scrimmage, where he took over.

“That was the first time we were like, ‘Ah, this is why he’s here,’” remembered Travis Walton, a Michigan State graduate who now trains Green. You had to see Green to understand his genius: the versatility, the smarts, the doggedness.

Izzo, with the passion of a convert, tried to convince the NBA.

“I used to say this: I know all his intangibles don’t add up,” Izzo told Yahoo Sports. “You can tell me all the things he can’t do, but I’m gonna tell you all the things he can do: whatever it takes to win.”

Few listened. It took a pre-draft workout unlike anything he’d ever seen to convince Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers.

Xavier Tillman, Grant Williams, Draymond Green, Lu Dort, Eric Paschall
The Draymond Generation: A rising crop of thoroughly, even pridefully, unsexy players in the mold of Draymond Green. (Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

In 2012, the Warriors drafted Green in the second round. He rode pine, desperately wanting to play. In the summer of 2013, Walton worked Green out three times a day. Walton called it Darth Vader mode: no videos, no criticism and no road map — so they worked on everything: floaters, ball-handling, shooting, playmaking.

When All-Star David Lee hurt his hamstring in the 2014-15 preseason, coach Steve Kerr started Green. The Warriors won 16 of their first 18. A temporary arrangement became permanent. Three championships and a Defensive Player of the Year award later, Green’s done arguing.

On Saturday, a reporter asked him if he wished his game was seen in a “sexier way.”

“Wishful thinking,” Green said. “Most people will never learn the game of basketball. They think they know, but don’t have a clue. It is what it is. I enjoy being one of the not-so-many people that actually know the game, as opposed to watching and thinking they can dissect it because they realize who hit a shot. It’s fine.”

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

“SportsCenter” fixates on Curry’s triples, but hoop heads love Green. Memphis Grizzlies rookie Xavier Tillman, a 6-foot-8 ton of bricks from Grand Rapids, Michigan, said Green made defense “cool again.”

“Many people only care about buckets, but for a guy who could bring back entertainment through defense like your Dennis Rodmans and Tony Allens and Patrick Beverleys, it’s cool that he brought some hype to it.,” Tillman said.

Tillman is among a rising crop of thoroughly, even pridefully, unsexy players in the mold of Green — a new species of tough-minded bruisers who use angles, IQ and strength to make up for their height. Players who often look more suited for football than basketball, with physicality that belies the game’s reputation for grace. Players like 6-foot-3, 225-pound Luguentz Dort, not quite a guard in the same way that 6-foot-7, 235-pound Grant Williams is not quite a big.

Back when the Warriors were changing the game, sending sports fans all over the East Coast to work with tired eyes, Izzo was among the insomniacs. One night, a highlight reel emerged in his mind. Not Curry’s ear-splitting threes. Not Klay Thompson bursting for 20 points in a quarter. Instead, Izzo had his assistants cut tape of Green setting the bone-crushing picks that opened them up.

“Who ever would have thought somebody would do that? I’ve never done that in my life,” Izzo remembered.

Two mundane acts — screening, and its defensive outgrowth, switching — have had an explosive impact on the NBA. Since 2006, pick-and-rolls have steadily risen and doubled, according to Synergy Sports. That doesn’t include off-ball screens, which have exploded as the league rushed to copy the Warriors.

Green sets screens, switches screens, obliterates screens. The game’s underbelly, the gears that make stars shine or fade, has shifted with him — in game tape, in the imagination of front offices, coaches and players. Everyone is looking for the next Green, even Izzo.

Tillman was overweight when Michigan State caught wind of him. That didn’t bother Izzo as much anymore.

“Where we normally would have worried about Xavier’s weight, we said, we can get him in shape,” Izzo said.

Fat has become strength in hiding, the ideal weapon for a role player in the modern NBA.

“There’s something to be said for just being strong/solid in the NBA, where length has been valued for so long,” Eric Leidersdorf, P3’s Director of Biomechanics, said via email.

Grant Williams stopped growing and diversified his game

When Grant Williams was 12 years old, his imagination ran wild. It hasn’t stopped since. He was already 6-foot-2. His oldest brother was 6-foot-10.

“I was like, maybe I’ll be the tallest,” Williams said. “I’ll be like 7-foot, and stick to the game I’m playing.”

While fetching water for his brother’s high school team, Williams watched Kennedy Meeks, a 6-foot-10 high school senior orbiting 300 pounds, bully and outsmart opponents, dictating the game with his mind, dishing perfect passes out of double-teams.

“I always looked at him from the five position as somebody who I could really be like,” Williams said.

But then he stopped growing.

“I used to be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be Michael Jordan! I’m 6-6!’” Grant recalled, imitating a higher-pitched, more naive version of himself. He deadpans: “Then I realized I’m like 35 pounds heavier and not long. I had to humble myself.”

He also had to look for new models: Kawhi Leonard, another strong forward who built his game brick-by-brick; Charles Barkley, the patron saint of all short, unconventional bigs; and Boris Diaw, who dribbled the ball up the floor for the San Antonio Spurs of the early aughts.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

His brothers wondered why he didn’t try to score more. Others wondered why he didn’t play football. He wondered about who he could be, searching for a road map that would allow his hoop dreams to live in conjunction with the reality of his frame.

North Carolina, Williams’ dream school, reached out his freshman year, “and said I wasn’t tall enough.”

Williams’ high school team was stacked with guards. He shot 70% percent inside the paint, despite his length.

“It just didn’t make sense for our team to move him away,” said Brian Field, Williams’ coach at Providence Day. “But he worked hard to really transform his perimeter shooting.”

Williams kept shooting, kept dribbling, developing tools for a future he could envision but not yet articulate.

When Charlotte ACES AAU coach Kevin Ligon saw Williams run the break in practice, visions of Larry Bird, Toni Kukoc and Wes Unseld’s outlet passes sprung to mind. He saw Williams as Williams saw himself.

Grant Williams #12 of the Boston Celtics reacts after a call against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second half at TD Garden on February 1, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Grant Williams stopped growing at 6-foot-6 but learned how to make his game diverse. (Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)

In games, he started letting Williams dribble the ball up the floor after securing rebounds.

“Folks thought I was crazy,” Ligon said, laughing. Grant? The energy guy? Handling the ball? Opposing coaches hounded defenders to pressure Williams into turnovers. “Take it to him, he can’t handle it,” Ligon imitated. “By the third quarter, it’s like: guard him, he’s dangerous!”

Williams, a piano-playing math whiz who loves chess and Settlers of Catan, has a knack for finding and exploiting patterns within movement. He picks up scouting reports quickly, instructing teammates who are still learning, attacking matchups with his intelligence.

When the ACES played Harry Giles, the No. 1 big in the country, Williams routinely got himself switched onto Giles. With upfakes and barrelling drives, Williams kept Giles in foul trouble all game.

“I was like, this kid is playing chess,” Ligon said.

“The ability to be curious and wonder and pay attention, targeted towards the game of basketball, is a gift,” said Blake Boehringer, Williams’ trainer.

Ligon called Desmond Oliver, then an assistant coach at Charlotte, and told him about Williams — the stocky kid who always found a way to keep up with blue-chip prospects, from Giles to Bam Adebayo.

Oliver loved what he saw. He eventually left for Tennessee to coach under Rick Barnes, and Williams transferred to a bigger AAU program, the CP3 All-Stars, where he backed up Giles.

Rob Lanier, another Tennessee assistant, didn’t mind that Williams was undersized.

Lanier and Oliver cut their teeth at St. Bonaventure, where competing with bigger programs necessitated taking chances. They discovered hidden value in undervalued, undersized and oversized prospects that don’t fit in a box.

“Sometimes you just have to trust your eyes. Plenty of guys with Grant’s size and stature don’t translate, and it’s easy to put them all in the same pile,” Lanier said. “But when you’re watching a guy have success, you have to account for that.”

At the Peach Jam in 2015, Tennessee’s staff gathered in the stands to watch Williams. Oliver hoped Grant would play well enough for Barnes to like him, but not well enough to spark the imagination of scouts from bigger schools.

Backing up Giles, Williams didn’t get to show off his IQ, passing or the range he was improving. Relegated to hustle and grunt work, Williams reminded Barnes of another overweight and under-recruited tweener who got his start by defending blue-chippers all over Tobacco Road, where iron sharpens iron: P.J. Tucker, who played for Barnes in Texas.

When he left the Peach Jam, Oliver was the only mid-major scout in America who knew what Williams could do with the ball in his hands.

Williams’ mom wanted him to go to Harvard or Princeton, where he was offered scholarships, but Tennessee was the better basketball program. In three years, Williams lost weight, moved away from the basket and graduated, while the NBA got smaller and smaller. Stocky athletes like Grant usually generate power from their hips, which correlates well with lateral quickness, which correlates well with, you guessed it, switching on smaller players on defense.

“Fortunately, I stopped [growing] around 6-6 and learned to be diverse,” Williams said. “It’s allowed me to fit in the modern league rather than being 7-foot and not being able to move.”

Lu Dort succeeding while not caring about scoring

Draymond Green wasn’t in the bubble, but his ripples made it to Disney World. Last February, the Houston Rockets pushed small-ball to a new frontier, trading center Clint Capela and starting Tucker, a 6-foot-5 Lego block with a sizzling spot-up jumper, at center.

Tucker thinks of himself as a chameleon — adaptable to any circumstance, to any matchup he switches onto. Here, he was forcing someone else to adapt. In the 2020 Western Conference first round, Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams was put in a literally impossible position: closing out to Tucker at the 3-point line while trying to protect the rim.

That’s how the world discovered Lu Dort. He looked like a linebacker who stumbled onto a basketball court by accident — an undrafted short shooting guard who apparently couldn’t shoot. Yet he found a way to stay on the court, hounding James Harden like no one before him had. Houston ignored Dort from deep — a death knell for role players — but he kept drilling threes. As the clock dwindled down in Game 7, Dort made six triples and scored 30 points, the most in a Game 7 for a player under 21 since LeBron James.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

The oddity of his presence made Dort a confounding, charming delight. Each made shot was a counter against a game that almost locked him out, an inspiring statement of refusal: I belong. His success was permission to see an old game with new eyes, begging a question: How was a guy making just over $150,000, a guy no one had heard of, stopping Harden, one of the best scorers in NBA history?

The answer lies in the tears streaming down his cheeks after Harden blocked Dort’s series-deciding 3-point attempt, in the puffy, red eyes that faced the cameras and reflected on an unlikely journey that started in Montreal and spanned four high schools and four cities in four years.

“I just got so used to the movement that it was just whatever,” Dort said. “The first time, it’s always tough, but when it happens so many times, you just get used to it.”

Nelson Osse, who coached Dort for Montreal’s Parc Ex Knights, watched from afar and remembered the first time he saw Dort cry.

Dort doesn’t remember how the ball ended up in his hands. He just remembers his layup clanking off the rim. He was 12 years old, and his first season of organized basketball had just ended. The tears streamed down his face, sweeping Dort up in basketball’s tide.

“That was the moment where everybody was like, OK, this is not just for fun for him,” Osse said. “He wants to be good.”

Dort’s soccer days were behind him, but the goalkeeper’s intensity followed him. He hated losing. He hated getting scored on.

“He does not want to get scored on,” said Charles Hantoumakos, Dort’s coach at Athletes Institute. “Not at all. When somebody would score on that kid, you could see he’d get pissed off over it. We’re talking, over one layup.

“If you don’t have that kind of personal pride on the defensive end, where you take it personally when somebody scores on you, you can’t get to that level that he’s at.”

Luguentz Dort #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder runs the court during the first quarter of their game against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center on December 26, 2020 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Undrafted Luguentz Dort made a name for himself during the playoffs last season for Oklahoma City. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

But he never had to score, never cared about scoring — still hardly cares about scoring if we’re being honest — and he wanted to make it in a sport ruled by big-time bucket-getters.

Osse, charged with developing this dynamite stick who didn’t crack 6 feet but could finish through a ton of bricks, couldn’t let Dort settle for being a stopper. Osse started him at point guard for the junior varsity team, getting plenty of touches, rushing down the court like a mini-Westbrook.

“We had a long-term plan for him,” Osse said. “We gave him s*** when he didn’t take the right shot. We wanted to work on his outside game. If you’re open, you shoot.”

Dort eventually switched schools to be closer to practice, bussing an hour-and-a-half from home every day. Before his sophomore year, he moved to Florida, where he played in Jacksonville, then Orlando.

He was nervous about leaving his mom. A native French speaker, his English was rusty. “I was just so shy,” Dort said, “because my accent was really bad.” When he walked into the gym on the first day of school, his ears perked up with intense relief at the familiar sound of kids speaking French.

Dort racked up defensive accolades and won Pac-12 Freshman of the Year at Arizona State.

Rashon Burno, an ASU assistant who recruited Dort, called him “a throwback version of Charles Oakley, the enforcer, Dennis Rodman. He’s just doing it from a different position.”

But 6-foot-3 with a janky jumper, Dort was written off. He went undrafted in 2019.

“I’m still shocked, to be perfectly honest with you,” an NBA scout said. “But when we do see uniqueness, we overthink it.”

“In every scouting report we saw, people didn’t know,” Osse said. “Is he a shooting guard, a small forward?”

In his first G League game with the Thunder, Dort exploded: 35 points on 19 shots. His agent, Joe Smith of Wasserman, watched from the stands. He told Dort the Thunder weren’t going to ask him to score. He should focus on defense. The life of a role player: right when he mastered the new, Dort had to channel the old.

He didn’t mind.

“You could tell Lu he has to do 500 jumping jacks before he shoots a three,” Hantoumakos said. “He’ll look at you weird, but he’ll do it.”

Dort never took more than 15 shots again in the G League. After getting called up to the pros, Dort guarded the other team’s best player 30.8% of the time, more than anyone else in the NBA, according to Krishna Narsu of The BBall Index.

Dort has put together defensive highlight reels against Harden, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young and Damian Lillard. On defense, he transforms into whoever he sees in front of him. His IQ, speed and strength give him the versatility to mirror anyone he guards. People see different things when they see him, so he must be all things.

“I feel like I should have gotten drafted, and it didn’t happen,” Dort said. “I‘m moving forward, yes, but it’s always in the back of my head. Every team that didn’t want me at first, that I played against, it’s always in the back of my head. That’s for anything — even when I’m working out — I wanna get better. I feel like I’ve got something to show, something to prove.”

The future: ‘Draymonds don’t grow on trees’

Before Villanova, Eric Paschall was a scoring phenom. He didn’t lift weights until his senior year of high school, and on the mend from an ankle injury, he arrived on campus overweight.

Villanova’s strength and conditioning staff realized Paschall had the potential to carry unusual strength, and in three years, he shed 20 pounds of fat and morphed into the brick-like one-on-one stopper the Warriors drafted in 2019. That was coach Jay Wright’s plan all along.

“We’re gonna get you in shape. We’re gonna demand that you’re a great defensive player,” Wright recalled telling Paschall. “If you don’t want that, don’t come here. And he bought into that right away.”

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

Villanova recruits high-IQ players and asks them to focus on their weaknesses, churning out pros with positional inversions that suit the modern NBA: do-it-all wings like Mikal Bridges, guards like Jalen Brunson who can post up like bigs, and bigs who can dribble and pass like guards.

“What we liked about playing small was being skilled,” Wright said. “We tried to see: how much bigger can we get and remain skilled and mobile? It’s always an experiment.”

But, as one NBA scout put it, “Draymonds don’t grow on trees.”

Wright learned that with Dylan Painter, a 6-foot-10 forward the staff tried to morph into a wing.

“He was just too big, and he was much more effective around the basket. We were kinda forcing him to play on the perimeter. He transferred to Delaware and he’s really good because they use him in a system that fits him better, but we tried to kind of put a square peg in a round hole.”

Green widened the acceptable dimensions of what makes an NBA player, but to fixate on size is to miss the message of his rise: brains matter.

Draymond Green #23 and Eric Paschall #7 of the Golden State Warriors in action against the Brooklyn Nets  at Barclays Center on February 05, 2020 in New York City.
Before Eric Paschall (l) arrived at Villanova, he was a scoring phenom. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

When the Warriors were preparing for the Utah Jazz in the 2017 playoffs, Walton, Green’s trainer, watched Green catch pieces of a game while running errands around the house. At the next day’s film session, Green rattled off changes in the Jazz’s offensive system, on the angles of screens they set.

Walton was astounded. A former Utah assistant, he always admired subtle changes head coach Quin Snyder made to keep the playbook fresh and the scouting report running behind — intricacies he could follow thanks to consistent engagement with their offense. Green picked them up glance-by-glance.

“Just being around the game, that’s a basketball genius and a person with a photogenic memory,” Walton said.

“I’ll guarantee you,” said Izzo, “[the Warriors] could say, ‘Draymond, play the one, play three, play five,’ and he would pick them all up — he just has a knack.”

Green sweats the small stuff: the subtle screen angles that create just a little more space for shooters, the right weakside pass off the roll, giving up a 40% shot from a 50% shot. The little things accumulate to make Green the game’s first utility superstar.

Tillman’s body transformed at Michigan State, but he knows you don’t mimic Green simply by sharing his dimensions. He mined the tapes of Green’s screens for hints. When he was younger, Tillman’s mind skipped ahead when he was screening: should I pop or roll? He learned that “you won’t hit him as hard as you should if you’re trying to get yourself open.”

The Grizzlies front office recognized superior information-processing ability in Tillman, a complementary cog who read the pick-and-roll and picked up defensive concepts quickly at Michigan State, as well as a keen understanding of his role.

“I used to tell [Tillman] his sophomore year, you’re turning into a poor, poor, poor man’s Draymond,” Izzo said. “In his junior year, he turned into a poor man’s Draymond. Whether he can take that to another level to be the next Draymond, only time will tell.”

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