By Bill Roth
As he walked off the Philips Arena court in Atlanta this past March, Virginia Tech guard Erick Green looked up at the scoreboard and saw an all-too-familiar picture in lights. It was another close loss for the Hokies: Duke 60, Virginia Tech 56. That second-round ACC Tournament game marked the 11th time during an agonizing season that the Hokies had lost a game by four points or less, or in overtime. Eleven times during a 16-17 season, Tech was close, but fell short.
Of course, since then, much has changed for Virginia Tech basketball. James Johnson has taken over as head coach, and several key players have left the program. In many ways, it’s a new day. But one constant remains. Green, from Winchester, Va., returns for his senior season at Tech, after earning second-team All-ACC honors as a junior.
In preparation for his final year at Tech, Green attended the invitation-only CP3 Elite Guard Camp in Winston-Salem, N.C., a camp run by former Wake Forest and current Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul. Green joined other top collegiate guards, such as Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, Louisville’s Peyton Siva, Murray State’s Isaiah Cannon, Michigan’s Trey Burke, Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum and Duke’s Seth Curry among many others.
I had the chance to visit with Erick to talk about his experience in Winston-Salem and to look ahead at this year’s Tech basketball team.
BR: Let’s start with this elite camp. It’s a great honor just to get invited to this, so congratulations on that. What did you learn from the NBA guys who were there and the other top college players?
EG: “How to come off ball screens, how to pick-n-roll, how to use a flat screen, how to work on my one-on-one moves and score.”
BR: I know you talk with Zabe [Zabian Dowdell] a lot. What does he tell you in that regard?
EG: “We’re good friends. He tells me to stay focused and not worry about the next level. That people are going to try to talk with me about it all the time, and I should work on the stuff like the pick-and-roll and next-level style of play. And show people that I can lead a team that not a lot of people think much of, and prove them wrong. Zabe led them to the Tournament. He says I can do the same thing.”
BR: When you talk with Zabe, or Chris Paul, or the other elite players, what do they tell you about your game? What areas do you need to improve upon this upcoming season to grow as a player?
EG: “The pick-n-roll, and watching more film and understanding the game more. And being more of a leader.”
BR: What do you mean by ‘understand the game more?’
EG: “Well, lots of things. But the shot clock is one example. Knowing when the shot clock is at ‘10’ and knowing what to do with the ball once it gets there. It’s the point guard’s job to make sure the right guy has the ball at the right time.”
BR: And what about leadership?
EG: “Being more vocal and bringing it every day because my teammates look up to me.”
BR: Did you always do that last year?
EG: “No, I did not. It’s a learning process.”
BR: You’re not naturally a vocal guy, are you?
EG: “No, no. I’m very quiet and laid back, so that’s not my personality. I need to be upbeat and positive at all times. I can’t let my team see that I’m down. If they see I’m down, they’re going to be down. I feel like the guys look up to me, and they know I’m going to bring it when it’s time. I need to do a better job [this year] not just on the court, but also off the court. Making sure we stay out of trouble, making sure all the guys are on time, making sure everyone is going to classes. We need to get our team GPA [grade-point average] up, and that’s really important because I want all our guys to graduate.”
BR: Four years goes fast, doesn’t it?
EG: “Yeah, it flies by. It’s been great. I wish I didn’t have to leave.”
BR: What’s been the best part?
EG: “Other than basketball, meeting four of the closest guy friends that I’ve ever had, and those guys have become my brothers – Jarell Eddie, Cadarian Raines, Manny Atkins and Robert Brown.”
BR: Those are four pretty great guys. What kind of season do you think Jarell can have this year?
EG: “Everybody keeps talking about me, but he’s the one to look out for this year. He’s going to have a breakout season. He’s improved so much over the summer. He’s lost weight, he’s looking really cut-up, and he’s more aggressive. He’s not just a shooter. He puts the ball on the floor more now.”
BR: Cadarian is really a key for this year’s team, don’t you think?
EG: “Yeah, Cadarian has come a long way, too. He’s healthy. He’s in better shape. He’s got more confidence. He’s going to be one of the best big men in the ACC, if he stays healthy.”
BR: How is Robert getting along?
EG: “He’s finally healthy. He’s dunking in drills.”
BR: What will the strength of this team be?
EG: “Getting out and running, and being very quick. The way Coach J.J. wants us to play on defense is going to be a shocker to some people. We’re going to do some new things.”
BR: Like what?
EG: “We’re going to trap, get after it, press. Honestly, this is the best conditioned I’ve been in my three years here. We’ve been running and running and have these new tests, like the ‘22 test,’ that’s really hard.”
BR: Tell me about the “22.”
EG: “You have to run up and back, baseline to baseline, two times in 22 seconds. And you have to do it 22 times. You have to make all of them. They are the worst. Those are the days you don’t want to come in. It’s so hard. It’s mental. You have to convince yourself you can do it.”
BR: Baseline to baseline, twice in 22 seconds, 22 times?
EG: “We started off at 10 and then worked up to 12. Now we’re up to 22 times. You get a two-minute break after 10, like a TV timeout, and then you run the next 10.”
BR: Hardest drill you’ve ever done?
EG: “Yes, yes, yes, yes. It’s very hard. We’ve had a couple guys puke in the middle of it, but you’ve got to keep going.”
BR: If this team is going to press and trap, with just seven or eight guys, then you better be in great shape.
EG: “We are. Honestly, we’ve been running every day. Our conditioning with Coach [David] Jackson has been great this preseason. He’s been getting us in shape on the treadmill, getting us in shape on the court, working on our footwork … things like that.”
BR: You guys have been working so hard. Run down the preseason for us.
EG: “We practice Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6 a.m., and we lift three times each week [Monday, Wednesday and Friday]. Then we have conditioning afterward.”
BR: J.J. has really pushed you hard this preseason. What’s he telling you guys about how he wants you to play?
EG: “He wants us to run. Run. And run. He lets us all play. Unless you show him you can’t do something, he’ll let you do what you want as long as it’s in the system. So if you can shoot a 3 from deep, go ahead and shoot it. His biggest rule is that if you don’t play defense, you will not play.”
BR: So how will this team look as a result?
EG: “We are going to run. We are going to play a lot faster. We’re going to put up a lot of shots. We’re going to get after it on defense.”
BR: That sounds exciting, but at the end of the day, is Tech big enough and deep enough?
EG: “Not having the height and having only two big men concerns me. We’re going up against teams that have four or five guys who are 6-foot-9 or bigger, and they have more depth than we do. That’s the concern.”
BR: With that in mind, how good can this team be?
EG: “A lot of people are counting us out because of the coaching change and because we have only eight [scholarship] players, but when they see how hard we work, and honestly how good some of our players are and can be if everyone stays healthy, we’ll be fine. And we have a great coach. People just haven’t seen that yet.”
BR: I believe that. People will see that. How has J.J. changed from being an assistant to now being the head coach?
EG: “Honestly, he’s stayed the same. He’s still funny. He still jokes around with us. He has a personality, and he understands what we’re going through every day. I think the only thing is that he’s more vocal. He’s always intense and upbeat. He’s hyped. So he really hasn’t changed other than now he’s the head man.”
BR: From a player’s perspective, how hard is it to go through a coaching change?
EG: “It’s really hard because you have questions. Is he going to change the system up? Is he my type of guy? What is his personality? How does he coach? How does he approach things? For me personally, I wanted someone I could trust going into my senior year and hopefully move on to a career next year, so I trust J.J.”
BR: A lot of players go through that. Coaching is hard, and there’s more change now than ever for kids all over the country. Every school you visited out of high school, each school that recruited you, has had a head coaching change, right?
EG: “Yeah, George Mason, JMU, N.C. State, St John’s and here. It happens.”
BR: As you look back on it, why do you think so many games were close last year? Tech lost nine games in the final seconds and 11 in the final minute or overtime. Why?
EG: “Not having enough experience. Making simple mistakes like missing free throws and turning the ball over. Guys got into foul trouble. The easy, simple things that are fixable, we lacked last year.”
BR: Back to the camp you attended in June, is there a guard out there whose game you really like? A pro whose game you’d like to emulate?
EG: “Well, it would be great to be Chris Paul, but in reality, my game kind of resembles Kevin Martin of the Houston Rockets. He can score, and he’s smooth. I’d like to be like him.”
BR: Oh, I’m sure. He makes $11 million per year, so of course you do.
EG: (Laughing) “Yeah, right ,right. That would be nice.”
BR: Seriously, he has an unorthodox shot, and you really don’t.
EG: “No, I don’t. But I like the way he handles the ball and how smooth his game is, and I think I’m that way. Neither one of us is the most athletic guy, dunking on people and stuff like that, but we get the job done.”
BR: It’s neat. Your mom coached you in rec league basketball, and your dad in AAU ball. You’ve had a basketball family. It’s been your life, hasn’t it?
EG: “Yeah, and my sisters play, too. It’s been tremendous.”
BR: One of your very first teams, when you were 10 years old, featured a current Tech football player, David Wang. What was that like?
EG: “Oh, the Ashburn Red Storm. Yeah, David was our center. He was a big kid as a 10-year-old. He was big and wide, but he could run! We made it all the way to the tournament in New Orleans that year.”
BR: What are the odds that two 10-year-olds from the Ashburn Red Storm would be starting varsity athletes at Tech 11 years later?
EG: “I know, right? It’s a funny story. The Wangs would bring these awesome hot peas from China to our games. They were so good. And they’d bring Scooby Doo snacks, too (laughing). That’s a great family.”
BR: David and his brother [Ed] have had great careers here at Tech in football, and you’ve done incredibly well, too, in hoops. Let’s wrap this up: what else do our fans need to know about this year’s Hokies?
EG: “It’s a new year. New faces. New style of play. Something new we haven’t had in a while, and it’s going to be exciting.”