UNI basketball: AJ Green ready to handle hype, expectations ahead of freshman season
CEDAR FALLS, Ia. — AJ Green sported a sheepish grin as the conversation started, the bright red braces accentuating his still-boyish look. Next month should bring a clean smile. Nov. 8 is the target date.
“I’ve had my braces on for like five years,” the Northern Iowa freshman said with a laugh. “They said I’d have them off by senior picture, but that was a while ago.”
There’s signs of innocence beyond the corrective metal. A soft, modest voice answers questions about expectations and hype — no boisterous proclamations, no antics beyond the norm. For someone carrying the program-reviver tag, Green exudes a calm, quiet confidence.
A perfect match for the role he’s about to shoulder.
Among the many cherished moments across UNI basketball, Green’s arrival might be the most anticipated. The clamoring has brewed for years — as purple-clad supporters watched their local standout surge up the AAU scene and pick the Panthers despite larger opportunities. The noise only intensified after Green — UNI’s highest ranked prospect ever — led Cedar Falls to a state title in March. Many couldn’t wait for that Cedar Valley loyalty to transfer from high school to college.
Excitement has morphed into reality. The freshman sharpshooter is finally here, humbled yet prepared to handle what’s ahead.
“He’s earned that right to be that guy and be that guy from Day 1,” Panthers coach Ben Jacobson said at Wednesday’s media day. “And he’s going to be.”
College coaches tend to major in expectation tampering, but there’s been none of that in Cedar Falls. Consensus top-100 recruits don’t come around often in the MVC. UNI knows it has something special and isn’t hesitating to hand him the offensive keys.
Two aspects have made Green’s insertion quite seamless. One, after back-to-back seasons of point-scoring futility, the Panthers desperately need an injection. UNI has thrived on defensive toughness throughout Jacobson’s tenure, but a lack offensive flow and rhythm have masked most productivity. In last season’s KenPom rankings, the Panthers finished 205th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 349th in adjusted tempo.
Insert Green. At 6-foot-4, with a deadly high-arching shot capable of splashing home from anywhere, the UNI freshman could be the perfect remedy. Green averaged 26 points per game his senior year and is Cedar Falls’ all-time leading scorer. The Panthers haven’t had a backcourt weapon like this in, well … maybe ever.
“His release is so high,” teammate Tywhon Pickford said. “He’s tough to guard.”
Aiding the college jump is the familiarity. Green has been an honorary Panther for years, woven into the UNI fabric as his father, associate head coach Kyle Green, became a stable cog on Jacobson’s staff.
NCAA Tournament wins weren’t celebrated in a living room or restaurant — instead, consumed courtside with young AJ right in the action. As he got older, pickup games with current Panthers were a common sight. Heavy-hitting college suitors couldn’t overcome program loyalty.
“That’s made a big difference — that relationship piece,” Kyle Green said. “I think that’s why he’s comfortable and decided to come here. That’s one of the advantages of that relationship part as he goes through this transition. You’ve got guys you know and are comfortable who you can count on.”
All signs point to an organic leadership transition. Green’s teammates know his talent and his importance, but respect and trust aren’t handed out like candy. Through workouts, drills and practice sessions, the freshman’s consistency and poise has emerged at the top.
On a team that features just one scholarship senior, veteran voices aren’t abundant — another caveat that makes this environment perfect to drop in Green.
“Coach told me I have to be a leader,” he said. “I need to be vocal and communicate with guys. And also guys, they respect me and know that I understand the game. So it’s kind of both ways — they tell me stuff because I’m only a freshman. They’ve been around, but also if I have something to say, they know I know what I’m talking about.”
There’s little time for trial run. After the Nov. 6 season-opener versus Bemidji State, eight of UNI’s next nine games are on the road or at a neutral site. A Division I foe doesn’t come to the McLeod Center until Dec. 19.
With more offensive emphasis added to the table — along with health question marks on Tywhon Pickford and Austin Phyfe — UNI will need Green’s full arsenal from the jump. Erasing the learning curve must happen fast.
But that’s precisely why the noise is so loud. Green has been groomed to handle this pressure and responsibility. Behind that youthful front is a player ready for the spotlight.
“This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was little,” AJ said. “Ali (Farokhmanesh) was on Sports Illustrated. I want to be like that someday. It’s exciting and motivating to know that I’m here now and can make it happen. It’s not going to come easy, but it’s really cool.
“It doesn’t really pressure me too much. It’s mostly exciting to know what these people expect me to live up to.”
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.