The Challenge Pass: The Little Ways Draymond Green Leads the Warriors’ Offense

Many wondered coming into the season how the Warriors would handle another MVP on the team. Who would take leadership roles? Who would fall to the background? Who would step up?

If you watch the highlights of the Utah Jazz game on Tuesday night, you may see a monstrous Lebron-like dunk by Draymond Green, but you wouldn’t see the three plays I plan to analyze here. More than any showtime drive or 60-point spree, these three plays show the subtle ways in which Draymond has taken on the daunting task of “Spiritual Leader” for the best offensive team in NBA history.

The first play, as is often the case, starts with Draymond boxing out a taller Center (Rudy Gobert) and securing the defensive board. Instead of taking the ball up himself, as is also often the case, he dishes it out to Kevin Durant.

Before we get to the play, a note of context is necessary. Durant has been shooting out of his mind this year, his .539 Field Goal Percentage the best of his career. However, his Field Goal Attempts (as was predicted) are at a career low and the Warriors are urging him to take more shots.

Watch how Draymond walks that talk in this play. Durant thinks about the shot, but is hesitant to take his signature jumper with Boris Diaw sneaking over for the double-team. Draymond gives the ball right back to him as a sort of challenge and, more importantly, a show of confidence. The speed at which he returns the ball is immediately recognizable as abnormal to usual flow of the offense, signaling a type of basketball-specific communication that goes beyond words. Draymond then cuts down low to draw Diaw off Durant and practically dares him to take the shot. KD misfires, and even if he hadn’t, the play would never make a highlight reel. However, these are the moments that best exemplify the way Draymond can communicate with his star players both on and off the court.

At first I thought I may have read too deep into such a mundane moment in a blowout game, but just seven minutes later, he made the same “Challenge Pass” to JaVale McGee.
McGee is a mid-career seven-footer with (quite frankly) surprising athleticism. Unlike the former Warrior Andrew Bogut or their current international Center, Zaza Pachulia, both of whom contribute (or contributed) mostly as solid defenders and smart passers, McGee has become a centerpiece of the offense, receiving countless alley-oops from star passers like—you guessed it—Draymond Green.

_Here, in a 29-point game, Draymond is testing McGee’s talents. In a similar show of confidence, he enacts the same Challenge Pass back to McGee, challenging the seven-footer to go head-to-head with Rudy Gobert. This is not McGee’s usual play; its strangeness once again comes as a type of dare. The attempt fails and the play is forgotten, but Draymond’s leadership doesn’t go unnoticed. In the fourth quarter, McGee would attempt an unprecedented amount of post-up one-on-one plays down low and even (hilariously) attempt a three.

The point is, Draymond Green doesn’t just change the energy of the game with monster dunks and miraculous steals, but equally sends subtle signals across the court in the form of (seemingly) mundane passes.
The last example comes only a minute later as the third quarter winds down and the starters know they have little time left on the court. Steph Curry (who needs no introduction) loses control of the ball on an attempt at a fancy crossover move. Disappointed, Steph dishes it out to Green, who gives it right back, essentially telling Steph to try the move again and sink a three. With this quick pass he silently tells Curry that he’s the best shooter in the game and that he shouldn’t let a little slip-up shake his confidence. Unlike KD and McGee, Steph delivers.

It is easy to check the statline and marvel at Steph Curry, KD, and Klay Thompson each putting up 20 points a game. Equally easy is a recognition of Draymond’s MVP-status on the team, leading in rebounds, assists, and blocks. But in these three subtle (mostly psychological) passes, we see a type of leadership and on-court communication you’d never get from a backboard-shaking dunk or the numbers in the box score.

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