CEDAR FALLS – Gym Rats was a fitting name for the Cedar Rapids-based traveling basketball team AJ Green joined in elementary school.
University of Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson knows more times than not whenever he hears the shooting gun running or a basketball bouncing inside the McLeod Center that Green is the one putting in extra time.
“You pick up on that pretty fast when AJ got here and was a part of the program,” Jacobson said. “It’s not an accident when you walk in at a random time and he’s usually the guy in there. You can’t get him out of the gym.”
During his Gym Rat days, Green played up a grade alongside a group of boys who went on to play either football or basketball at the collegiate level. He carpooled from Cedar Falls with Waverly native and current University of Northern Iowa teammate Austin Phyfe on Wednesday nights.
“He wasn’t one of those kids that was super big for his age so he was playing up,” Phyfe recalls. “But his skill level was just so high compared to everyone else’s.”
Working on his handle with two-ball drills alongside UNI associate head coach and father Kyle Green, AJ quickly discovered that being proficient off the dribble allowed him to play a step ahead of defenders.
“Not always being the biggest guy, and definitely not the strongest at the time when I was little, I had to find other ways (to score),” Green said. “Back then, all I shot was pull-up jumpers.”
Now into his sophomore year of college, Green continues to play beyond his years.
The Missouri Valley Conference on Thursday named the Panthers’ guard the 2020 Larry Bird Player of Year.
Green is UNI’s sixth conference MVP, dating back to Pete Spoden in 1962. Jason Daisey (1997), Adam Koch (2010) and Seth Tuttle (2015) received the honor during UNI’s affiliation with the MVC.
“It was a goal, kind of in the back of my head,” Green said. “If we’re having the success, I can try to get that award. But the team success always comes first.”
The Panthers’ 25-5 overall record with an outright 14-4 MVC regular season crown certainly helped Green’s resume. He averaged a league-leading 21.8 points against conference opponents to go with an MVC-best 93.6 free throw percentage and 3.3 3-pointers per league game.
Green has made a significant jump from his freshman season in which he earned third team all-MVC honors and was named the league’s Freshman of the Year. Next season, Green will have an opportunity to become his program’s first repeat Player of the Year.
The first UNI sophomore to reach 1,000 career points is nearing the stretch run of perhaps the greatest individual season in program history. Green enters UNI’s Friday MVC Tournament quarterfinal with 591 points during his sophomore campaign, 54 back of Randy Blocker’s single-season record of 645. Green’s free throw percentage is on pace to surpass Dale Turner’s record 87.4%, and he is eight 3-pointers back of the 96 that current Panther assistant Marc Sonnen netted in 2012-13.
Green’s response to a 34-point masterpiece against Drake offered a succinct catchphrase that describes his approach: “It’s just hoopin’, really.”
Panther fans have become accustomed to the type of creative shot-making Green has rehearsed countless times during solo workouts. Many of his highlight-reel moves have come from YouTube.
“I’d see something from an NBA game on YouTube and I’d practice those moves into a pull-up, to a step-back and kind of get creative with counters or different variations of stuff,” Green said. “I’d use my imagination.”
While plenty of athletes across a variety of sports try to emulate the greats, Green is one of the select few determined to invest the time necessary to pull it off.
“He wants to win so bad that whatever he can do to help us win, he’s going to do it,” Jacobson said. “That right now is the separator.”
Since college, Green’s focus has narrowed more toward Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum.
“He’s my favorite player to watch his game and the way he plays, how he changes pace so well,” Green said of his role model, who stands one inch shorter at 6-foot-3. “He’s shifty and uses his body to get to his spots because he’s not necessarily the most athletic or fastest dude out there. But he’s really good at playing at his pace and his speed. I try to model that.”
In particular, highlights from McCollum’s 30-point game when No. 15 seed Lehigh upset Duke in the 2012 NCAA Tournament’s opening round have caught Green’s eye.
“He’s a mid-major guy, too. That’s why I’m a big fan of him,” Green added.
Perhaps the Panthers’ sophomore will soon get a chance to slay a giant in the NCAA Tournament. He certainly has some made-for-YouTube highlights of his own.
Green’s range, which first surfaced when he was knocking down 3-pointers beyond the NBA line as a high school sophomore competing at state, is complemented with the ability to crossover defenders and pull-up into a quick release.
“You’ve got elite shooters and you’ve got some guys that have the ability to handle the ball with some in-between game, get fouled a little bit,” Jacobson said. “Not very often do you have a guy who is doing both at the level (of Green). That’s why he’s one of the best players in the country. … He’s worked to be a complete player.”
Dedication doesn’t end with Green’s jumper. He’s physically transformed a body that Jacobson anticipates still has room to grow.
“He’ll lift hard,” UNI’s coach said. “He wants to be challenged in the weight room, and we’ve seen the results and benefits.”
Leadership picked up from seniors the past two seasons has also been part of Green’s development. Jacobson didn’t shy away from projecting where his star guard will end up after college.
“I don’t know how that road will go, but I don’t have any doubts in my mind that he will be in the NBA,” Jacobson said.
Photos: UNI men’s basketball
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