Jalen Green could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, and he's so much more than just a unicorn
Get to know the top player in the 2020 class, who's drawn comparisons to Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant
FRESNO, Calif. -- It's a crisp, summer morning in Northern California, fresh dew on the grass, and the not-yet-blistering sun making its slow ascent to its scorching apex. It's 5 a.m., an hour not many soon-to-be eighth-graders see during summer vacation -- but Jalen Green is no ordinary teenager.
His stepfather, Marcus Greene, heads downstairs to wake Jalen, asleep on the couch, for his morning workout -- running miles in a weight vest, basketball training ... you know, normal things for a 13-year-old on summer break. But this morning Green sleeps with a smile on his face. He's been working on something, and this is the day he'll finally let Marcus in on the secret. Marcus gently wakes Jalen, and he's promptly serenaded by four words that will change the lives of everyone in the family.
"I can dunk now."
Green rolls off the couch, half asleep, throws on a pair of low-top red Vans, and heads to their outdoor court. Just like that, the middle-schooler throws down his first dunk, earning a pair of Jordan Concord lows that Marcus promised him if he slammed one home before entering eighth grade, and setting the family on a journey that will lead Jalen Green to South America, Asia and onto the radar of salivating NBA scouts.
"Every time I step on the court, I'm the best on the court," Green, now 16, told CBS Sports. "I don't care who you are, where you're from, what you're working on or what you're doing. If you're guarding me, and if you're trying to score on me, I'mma lock you up and I'mma get by you and I'mma get a bucket. Simple as that."
Set to enter his junior year of high school, the 6-foot-5 Green is the top high school basketball player in the Class of 2020 according to 247Sports. His 130,000 Instagram followers (he recently secured the highly coveted @jalen handle), along with countless YouTube viewers, have become entranced by his astonishing array of dunks -- vicious posterizations of 7-footers, dunk contest-worthy jaw-droppers and angelic glides to the rim in high school and AAU gyms across the country.
He's won two gold medals with Team USA (earning tournament MVP honors for his most recent effort in the FIBA U17 World Cup), and is well on his way to fulfilling his dream of becoming the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft -- which could happen sooner than he originally thought. There's significant momentum building in the NBA to once again allow players to enter straight from high school, eliminating the controversial "one-and-done" rule that's been in place since 2006. Nobody can be sure if the rule will change in time for Green to go straight to the pros, but he's hoping it will.
"People have said that he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft," said Brad Roznovsky, Green's coach at San Joaquin Memorial High School. "I know he would love to be. He wants to be the best, and I think there's a good chance that's gonna happen."
Green's also picked up a nickname along the way, first bestowed upon him by a Florida State coach who showed up to watch him practice.
The nickname may already have been claimed by the New York Knicks' 7-3 All-Star Kristaps Porzingis, but for Green it takes on a different meaning -- one that he's happy to embrace.
"I feel like I am different," Green said. "Like, not even on the court. On the court you can tell I'm different -- I play different. But off the court I'm different, too. ... You know, I'm the unicorn. What else can I say?"
When Green is asked to pose for a photo (which happens increasingly often), he'll sometimes throw his index finger onto his forehead, symbolizing the unicorn's defining feature, a message to the world that this isn't just another top recruit. This is someone special -- someone whose name will one day be permanently etched into the basketball lexicon.
What makes Green so appealing to the modern NBA is his versatility. At 6-5 and still growing, his athleticism and length project him to play multiple positions at the pro level as he continues to fill out his 172-pound frame. His dunks fuel the mixtapes, but he's a tenacious defender, a knock-down shooter and an adept passer (he's started spending more time at point guard). He already has his choice of college programs and, come 2021 -- maybe even 2020 -- an NBA team will likely pick him, possibly first overall.
"You hear stuff that he resembles Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady," Roznovsky said. "I'm a big Kobe Bryant fan. And obviously those are some big coattails to follow, but Kobe just had that 'it' factor, and Jalen's got that 'it' factor."
But there's so much more to Green than just a basketball phenom. Spend some time with him and you'll quickly notice the dichotomy between a humble, quiet, generous kid off the court and a brash, confident, trash-talking top prospect on it.
But first thing's first ... let's talk about those shorts.
Is it the shorts?
Green is already somewhat of a legend in the Fresno area -- there's even a rap song from local artists featuring the hook, "Ballin' like I'm Jalen," which Green and his friends take turns blaring from their iPhone speakers. But he almost left his comfortable surroundings for greener basketball pastures at one of the nation's leading prep school powerhouses. One fateful holiday tournament, however, stopped that transfer in its tracks.
It's a late night in Las Vegas, and Green's parents are driving frantically around the city. Their son, in the middle of one of the most prestigious high school basketball tournaments in the country, is going through a crisis that can't wait until tomorrow.
"I feel like I am different. Like, not even on the court. On the court you can tell I'm different -- I play different. But off the court I'm different, too. ... You know, I'm the unicorn. What else can I say?"Jalen Green
Nobody's answering the phone and Google searches are coming up empty, so Jalen's mother, Bree Purganan, and stepfather Marcus have to take matters into their own hands. They stop at a store to pick up needle and thread, and they race home to begin the operation. The improvised surgery isn't taking place on Jalen, though. Bree, a nurse, isn't using her considerable sewing skills to suture a wound. Instead she's making sure that the only thing almost as important to Jalen as basketball and family is taken care of: His shorts.
It may sound silly, but to Jalen, his trademark short shorts are no laughing matter. Since seeing his friend and fellow top 2020 recruit Joshua Christopher at a tournament in 7th grade, Jalen's worn his shorts at a specific length, more in the vein of 1980s John Stockton than Michigan-era Chris Webber. This got him into some trouble during his team's first game at the Tarkanian Classic earlier that evening. As a matter of routine, Green rolls the waistband of his shorts before every single game until they reach the desired length. But when he walked onto the court against Las Vegas' Liberty High School and his friend Julian Strawther (who also happens to be the No. 22 recruit in the country) on that December night, the ref told Green to turn right around and head back to the bench.
You see, there's a rule in Nevada prohibiting high school players from rolling their shorts on the court. So Jalen, who actually, without thinking, rolled his shorts again when he re-entered the game and was again sent to the bench, played the rest of the game with what he would consider uncomfortably long shorts. And his team lost, 82-64.
After the late-night mad dash to get supplies, Bree and Marcus spent all night tailoring their son's shorts (Bree took the home whites, Marcus the away blues), and when the ref tried to once again send him back to the bench to start the next night's game, Jalen triumphantly raised the bottom of his jersey, exposing a perfectly hemmed waistline. Even the ref had to marvel at the handiwork as he signaled Green to play on.
This might seem like a lot of time and effort for a pair of shorts, but they're representative of Jalen Green's attitude toward basketball, and life in general. In keeping with the unicorn nickname, Jalen wants to express himself on and off the court, and his shorts are his signature -- his spark of individuality and source of power, like Samson's hair.
If you question how seriously Green takes his shorts, keep this in mind: After learning about the Nevada rule preventing players from rolling their shorts, the family canceled its plans to move to Las Vegas and have Jalen transfer to basketball power Findlay Prep.
"As soon as they said that, as soon as that happened, we already were saying that in the crowd, 'Well, guess we ain't going to Vegas. We ain't moving to Nevada,'" Marcus told CBS Sports. "And as soon as he came off the court, and the game was over, he was like, 'Yeah we're not moving to Nevada. If I can't roll my shorts I can't do it.' And so there it is. That killed it."
Don't mess with this young man and his short shorts. The entire career arc of the nation's top basketball recruit changed course because of a rule preventing players from rolling their shorts. But it wasn't the unique attire that gained Green his status as prep basketball's top dog -- instead it was years of unwavering hard work, and a focus and dedication to being the best.
'What keeps me grinding'
Jalen Green has a Mini-Me.
The sun is just starting to set in the clear May Fresno sky, and, after a full day of school, a series of on-camera interviews and a basketball workout in a crusty, windowless old facility called Ryan Gym that looks like it came straight off the "Hoosiers" set, Green is nearing the finish line of his second workout of the day. This time it's at One Way Speed Training, located in what looks like a small airplane hangar down an industrial back road.
The workout is no joke. One minute Green pounds his size 15 sneakers on an inclined treadmill like Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV." The next, he's harnessed to a giant elastic band, the other end attached to the wall, which provides resistance as he chases an algorithm of flashing lights on a series of yellow poles -- all while keeping his dribble alive. Then it's time for shooting on a mechanized basket, sprinting to the wall after each jumper, hoping to back before the machine spits out the next chest pass -- if the ball hits the floor, he owes trainer Kevin Swayne 50 pushups.
Green's hands are on his knees. His shirt is pulled halfway up to expose a heaving abdomen lacquered with sweat, his wiry legs protruding from his signature short shorts, gravity pulling his mop of curly, dark brown hair toward the floor. He's gassed, but he can't show it. He stands next to his mom, who's been sprinkling in strategic words of encouragement throughout the workout -- she's not loud, but her presence is felt. Green looks at her, smiles, and turns his attention back toward his goal. He has to finish his workout, like he does every day, because he knows someone is watching.
When they stand next to each other it becomes evident right away. Green is about a foot taller and a few years older, but the similarities are striking. A young baller, 13-year-old A.J. Johnson, studies every move Green makes, measuring himself against the best he's ever seen. Same hairstyle. Same short shorts. Same shooting mechanics. Players A.J.'s age don't normally do this kind of speed, strength and skill training -- but once he heard Green was doing it, good luck trying to stop him.
"That's honestly what keeps me grinding," Green said about Johnson following his lead. "Like, if he's looking up to me, I'm doing something right. So if he wants to look up to me, and I stop doing what I'm doing and I go down the wrong path, then he's gonna be like, 'Dang, I looked up to him.' So, like, I just gotta keep my head on tight."
Green's schedule has been jam-packed with basketball for quite some time. It started back in sixth grade, when Jalen approached his stepdad with a simple question: "How do I get better?"
That launched years of individual workouts followed by back-to-back practices, weekends chocked with games and more recently, workout sessions at One Way Speed Training. You'd think all that would wear on a 16-year-old, particularly one who enjoys hanging out with friends as much as Green does. But he's never asked for a day off ... though he came close, once.
He had just finished playing for two different teams in a tournament in Reno, Nevada. After playing nine games in three days, he was understandably wiped out. Though he never said it, his parents could tell he needed some time off. But when the car pulled up in the driveway after the five-hour drive home to Fresno, dreams of basketball dominance had washed away the stains of fatigue. The first words out of his mouth were to ask his parents how quickly he could get into the gym again.
"We have to tell him, 'You need a week off,' " Bree told CBS Sports. "And he'll take a day off and he'll be like, 'I can't, I wanna get back in the gym. We're like, 'You have to rest your body.' Everyone tells him, 'You have to rest your body, you have to take care of your body.' He's just like, 'I wanna get in the gym.' So it's like, I mean, we try to keep him away, but he wants it so bad, what do you do?"
His hard work has paid off so far, and it's upped the level of expectation for a strong Fresno basketball tradition. Three current NBA players -- Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez and Quincy Pondexter -- all suited up for the same mid-2000s squad at Green's high school, San Joaquin Memorial. DeShawn Stevenson, a 13-year NBA vet who entered the league straight out of Fresno's Washington Union High School, has spoken with Green about the possible jump from high school to the NBA. Demetrius Porter, also a standout at Washington Union and later Fresno State, is the program director for Green's Fresno-based AAU team, Elite Basketball Organization.
"I don't even think he understands the magnitude of what he's doing for Fresno," Porter said. "He gives hope to a lot of kids, and he really has the city on his back."
The dog and his pack
A native of California's Central Valley, Green has truly found a home in Fresno, where his legend grows daily with tales of between-the-legs dunks, 50-point games and his NBA future. He just concluded his sophomore year at San Joaquin Memorial, where he walks the beautiful outdoor campus in a form-fitting uniform polo shirt and snug khaki shorts, custom tailored to land about midway down his thighs, just like his basketball shorts. Green stands out immediately because of his height, gold chain with his No. 4 dangling from his neck, and the fact that he couldn't look more like a basketball player -- the other students don't ogle him, but they clearly know that they have a uniquely talented classmate.
Green lives with his mother, stepfather, younger sister and close friend in a second-floor apartment in Fresno. There's a big-screen TV in the living room, a dining room table in the corner near the kitchen, where the refrigerator is home to a list of chores with items like "pick up living room," "make your bed," and "complete homework." It's the type of organization you'd expect from Bree, a nurse who previously served as a corrections officer at both men's and women's prisons (the men were more respectful to her, she says).
On the floor are food and water bowls for Twilight, the household's tiny and unbearably cute poodle. He's second on the adorable scale, however, behind Jalen's 7-year-old sister, Jurnee, whose heart-melting grin could enliven even the most depressed soul.
Down a narrow hallway are the bedrooms, with Jalen's on the left. The bed, home to a brightly colored stuffed unicorn, takes up most of the square-footage, and the closets burst with clothes and, more importantly, prized sneakers. He's most proud of a pair of Y-3 X James Harden Tangutsus sneakers with pink flowers prominently displayed on the laceless tongues. They aren't typical basketball kicks, which is exactly why Jalen likes them so much.
One thing you don't see in Green's room, however, are trophies.
"He's not like that," Bree said. "He has a lot [of accolades], we just don't -- like I said, he's really humble. He doesn't showcase things."
It's true. Walking into Jalen's room, you have know idea that he even plays basketball. It's only when you ask him to show you his honors that the barrage begins. From his closet, behind the sneakers, emerge a bevy of trophies, plaques, signed basketballs and, yes, a gold medal from Team USA's FIBA title.
It's not that Green isn't proud of his accomplishments -- Bree told CBS Sports in May that the U16 gold medal was his favorite achievement -- but displaying them is just not something that crosses his mind.
In fact, when you talk to Green you engage with a shy, humble kid who downplays his accomplishments. But then you watch him on the court and he's a whole different animal -- dunking on people, flexing, talking trash. It's almost impossible to reconcile what you see in the videos with the young man you meet in person.
"I'd rather him be that way on the court and not in the world," Marcus said. "Because reality is, all this can be taken from us at any moment. And so, on the court you have to play with that aggressiveness, that 'come get me' attitude, because you don't wanna be a pushover."
Green is anything but a pushover. Those around Jalen, from family to coaches, use the same phrase to describe his demeanor on the court: "He's got that dog in him."
It's only fitting since Jalen's second love behind basketball is animals -- particularly dogs. He outwardly displays unbridled affection for his own pup, and wants to be a veterinarian if his basketball dreams should somehow come to an unexpected end.
But Green is also familiar with the darker, wilder side of dogs.
He grew up in Livingston, California, where he says his remote house was literally surrounded by wolves and coyotes. From there the wolves became more figurative, when he moved 20 minutes down the highway to Merced, a place Green referred to as "the complete hood." Even now, in what he calls "the good side of Fresno," Green says there are dangers he has to make a conscious effort to avoid. It's part of the reason why his friends and family are so important to him.
"They just keep me out of trouble -- tell me life stories, stuff like that," Green said of his family. "It just keeps my head tight, like I don't wanna go down that path. I want to do better for myself, so when I get to that point, when I make it, I can do something for my family. Because they've been doing something for me the whole time."
The word "family" doesn't just refer to Green's parents and blood relatives -- he has a group of close friends whom he calls his brothers. How close, you ask? About six inches apart -- sometimes not even that.
All 6-5 of Jalen Green shares his queen bed with his friend Jahmai Bartley, who lives with the family. Bartley, who started off sleeping on the couch but eventually made his way to Green's bedroom, goes about 6-4, plays basketball for Central High in Fresno, and is a bit thicker than the svelte Green. Needless to say, this leads to some midnight battles as the two jockey for position like they're boxing out on the court.
"Jahmai's a wild sleeper," Green said. "He'll be moving all over the place, snoring loud, just rolling. He's really like a big bear. It's not that bad, honestly. I'll be like, 'Mai, move over,' and give him an elbow or something like that, but it's not that bad as you would think."
Also in Green's circle are Cash Williams, who has known Jalen since elementary school, and Kawan Kendrick. You often hear about NBA players being able to deal with outside pressures and expectations because of their strong core of friends and family. Visit with Green for just a few hours, and you'll see that he has that part taken care of.
"I think he's a good judge of character," Bree said of her son's choice of friends. "His teammates, everybody. Everybody who hangs around with him are great kids. And pretty much [Jalen's] had the same close-knit friends for years now."
But the better Green gets at basketball, the more it takes him away from his friends. Even though they live in the same city, Green attends a different school, which creates a divide between his home life and his school life. And then there's the travel. Just two years ago, Las Vegas was the farthest away from home Green had been. Since then he's journeyed all over the world, and during the summer he's rarely home for more than a week at a time.
Like a king
Green's reach extends well beyond his high high school campus, and even the city of Fresno, thanks to Instagram, YouTube, trips to Argentina with USA Basketball, and a very special voyage to the Philippines.
He's won gold the past two summers as a member of the U16 and U17 USA national teams, most recently taking home tournament MVP following a dominant 95-52 win in the gold medal game over France in Santa Fe, Argentina earlier this month. Green was the tournament's MVP scoring a team-high 15.7 points in seven games, all USA wins, and the gold medal will join the one that Green won at last year's tournament.
As much as he values his time with Team USA, Green glows when he talks about another trip -- the one he and his family made to the Philippines. There he was worshiped like a god after flooring the crowd in the dunk contest and posterizing local 7-1 prospect Kai Sotto during a game.
Green's family on his mother's side is Filipino, so it was an emotional and eye-opening trip to Manila. Jalen and his parents occasionally feared for their lives in the hectic traffic patterns, but overall it was a tremendous experience. It also gave Jalen a taste of the fame he could soon experience from rabid NBA fans.
"Each game just more and more people came," Green said. "I went out there, I won the dunk contest. And then I scored 51 points and broke the record out there. They all just looked at me like -- like I'm a king or something."
Whether it's the highlight dunks, the short shorts, or his blossoming social media presence that reveals a unique and down-to-earth young man, Jalen Green could become a household name sooner than you think.
"I just want to be the greatest," Green said. "I love the game. I got a feel for it. Without basketball, my life would be boring, you know? It brings my family close, we enjoy all the traveling and stuff like that. Basketball is fun. I love it, and I just want to be the greatest that could ever play."
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