When I first met Jalen Green, he seemed a lot older than he was. He was only 16, but he had the firm handshake of an adult and the smooth crossover of an NBA player. He carried himself with the air of: I've been here before.
"I feel like I'm grown," he told me on that day in 2018. And he was treated like he was grown, too. Famous before he even got his driver's license. An Instagram celebrity. He's become even more famous over the two years since.
I stayed in touch with him and his family, watching as he developed a jump shot—and as he labored on his defense, silencing his doubters. I began to realize along the way that nobody in his class is more suited to become a pro player than Jalen. He loved Kobe Bryant, and he seems to fit that mold of player who always stays ready, who is always willing to go at whoever he needs to, no matter how much older they are than him.
The moment I knew he could thrive in a pro setting, however, came on that first day I met him. Back in 2018, back in Fresno, back when he kept telling me how badly he wanted to escape his surroundings, to show kids that they could make it out. I asked him if he felt any pressure, dealing with stalkers, dealing with everyone knowing his name, dealing with everyone wanting something from him. He broke into a big smile, spinning a basketball on his finger, looking like he's thought about this question for quite some time.
"Nah," he told me, loud and clear. "I don't feel pressure. I love it. I love it."
DECEMBER 13, 2018 —
Jalen Green can't go to Fashion Fair Mall here in Fresno, California, without fans spotting him.
"Is that Jalen Green?!" they scream.
He smiles and nods shyly as they rush to his side, looking like ants next to his gangly 6'6"-and-still-growing frame.
"Can we get a picture, Jalen?!"
Kids at his school, San Joaquin Memorial, take pictures of him even when he's not looking, thinking he doesn't see them. But he does. He's keenly aware of the eyes that are always on him, the arms that are always reaching for him.
After a game against nearby Madera High last season, there were so many people grabbing at Green, trying to take photos with him, that school authorities had to escort him out the back door.
And on this dreary Wednesday in late November, he's certainly the brightest.
His candy-red Jordan 12 Retros blend into red fall leaves scattered across gray-black pavement. It's been raining all day. The train tracks at nearby Floradora Avenue are swamped.
A few men are hugged around nearby street corners, idle. There isn't much to do here on most days but wait. Wait for San Joaquin Memorial's 6:30 p.m. tipoff. Wait in line for a $5 ticket to watch Green do a between-the-legs dunk on a fast break or shake three defenders before bodying his way to the basket.
He doesn't really think about the person guarding him in those situations. He just glides.
"I know I'll get by them," Green says. "You're not going to stay in front of me."
He dropped 46 points against Rockwall, including a game-winning, step-back three-pointer, just five days earlier at the Thanksgiving Hoopfest outside Dallas. That weekend, fans spotted him in a Nike store in the city. "Are you Jalen Green?! Can we get a picture?!" a group of boys screamed. Green was shocked. So was Marcus Greene, his stepfather. This wasn't Fresno.
"It's crazy. He's not in the NBA. He's not in college. He's not Zion," Marcus says, referring to Duke's super freshman, Zion Williamson. "But they know who Jalen is."
Maybe Green shouldn't have been shocked, though. He is morphing into a global superstar. He has 208,000 Instagram followers and is flooded with comments from strangers every day telling him: I wanna be like you.
When he played in Manila, Philippines, this past March (he's part Filipino), in the 2018 National Basketball Training Center National League for Fil-Am Sports, the Filipino fans chanted: "Idol! Idol! Idol!" in Tagalog every time he touched the ball.
Later in the summer, while helping Team USA win gold at the 2018 FIBA U17 World Cup in July, he signed so many shoes and shirts that he could have penned his name blindfolded. He was named MVP of the tournament.
"Sometimes we forget he's 16, with everything he's doing, everything he's going through," says Bree Purganan, his mother.
It doesn't feel to him like he's a 16-year-old. "I feel like I'm grown," he says. Many people treat him that way. There are friends who ask for money he doesn't have, people in his neighborhood who ask for opportunities he hasn't yet seized. Everyone seems to want the future to arrive as soon as possible. College coaches call him every night. Bloggers start rumors that say he has already committed to a college when he hasn't. Even his closest friends treat him like he's an NBA player.
"They act like I've already made it or something. I haven't," Green says. "I still got a long way to go. I still got decisions to make."
When he says he's taking his time with his college decision, he tucks his head down, almost coiling into himself, as he sits in the top row of bleachers at San Joaquin Memorial.
He's grown up in the spotlight over the past few years but is still adjusting to its glare. He has a habit of mumbling in interviews, speaking so softly, even at home, that Bree and Marcus have to remind him to speak louder. They also tell him to watch what he posts and watch who he speaks to. There is always someone who seems to want something from him.
"Everyone keeps telling us it's going to get worse," Marcus says. "This is just the start of it."
The next day, about two hours before tipoff against Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High, a man and a woman approach Green while he's sitting on the bleachers. They start to ask him questions.
Bree and Marcus—already planted in their customary seats to the right of the basket, where you can usually find them yelling to Green to box out, crash the boards—look concerned, but they let it go.
The man and woman leave, and Green enters his quiet, his calm. He doesn't have to think about answering questions or making college decisions.
"I just wanna hoop," Green says.
When it comes time to do just that, he runs out with his teammates as the only one not wearing a navy shooting shirt. He's wearing an all-black T-shirt with the word Enough written in white letters to honor the 12 victims of the recent Thousand Oaks mass shooting.
Green is also the only player wearing short shorts, as he always does, far above his kneecaps. To be exact: 16 inches in length and an 11.5-inch inseam. He gets them tailored now, since he isn't allowed to roll the waistband up any more, per California rules.
This is his signature look. The look that makes him appear more like an NBA player from the '90s and makes him look even skinnier than his lanky frame admits. Other than the fact that he doesn't like the feeling of material on his knees, he intentionally wears his shorts this short because he longs to stand out.
"I want people to know I'm setting my own trend," Green says. "I'm not going to follow you."
That's the reason he calls himself The Unicorn: "I don't want to do what everyone else is doing," he says.
He is one of the leaders of "Unicorn Fam," a group of top prospects that includes 2019 star recruits James Wiseman and Vernon Carey Jr. Green's own Unicorn nickname came from a Florida State coach who happened to be attending a San Joaquin Memorial practice.
"He's different," the coach said.
Being different, for Green, isn't something that always shows up in the box score or even in a highlight reel. It's that he moves differently, thinks differently. He's quick and long and electrifyingly athletic, once dunking on a 7'1" player. He can float between all five positions and has a motor that doesn't seem to stop. He'll accelerate to freeway speeds in the open court, though it looks like he's cruising.
"We're watching a pro right now," says Brad Roznovsky, San Joaquin Memorial's coach. "People that I've talked to say that this kid is as good as Kobe when Kobe was in high school. A lot of people compare him to Penny Hardaway, too."
He's also a gifted distributor, able to whip passes through gaps others might not see. He plays the 2 but could play point guard at the next level. "LeBron is such a great passer, and I see so much of Jalen in him," Roznovsky says. "Jalen is so unselfish."
Kobe? Penny? And LeBron? That's a tall order to live up to for a kid who still isn't allowed to leave his house if his room isn't cleaned by Friday. (It's often messy. He has to clean under the bed, in his closet. Everywhere.)
"It's a lot of pressure, with all these people saying I'm the next Kobe Bryant, or I'm the next this and that. The greats," Green says. "People in the stands are coming here for a show, to watch me, but you never know how the game's going to go.
"I'm not gonna put on a show every night. My shot's not gonna fall every night."
He's also coming of age in the era of likes and tweets and clicks, something Kobe, Penny and LeBron didn't have to worry about. Green loves the attention—and loves that he's on the brink of achieving his college basketball dream—but living under a microscope can be overwhelming.
"Honestly, I don't even really like the clout. I mean, it's cool having it and all, but it's stressful," Green says. "It comes with a lot."
His followers might think he lives a glamorous life, traveling around the world to play. But he is rooted in home, a modest three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with his family and dog, Twilight. "He's not living large," Marcus says. "It's not the worst, but it ain't the best. He works for everything. There was nothing really handed to him."
When Green looks around Fresno, he sees things he doesn't want to get swept up in—mainly gangs and drugs. And he hears a lot of stories about great basketball players who turn into just that: stories.
There have been several Fresno players to make it to the NBA, including DeShawn Stevenson, Brook and Robin Lopez and Quincy Pondexter. Green has a chance to prove he could be better than all of them. But for now, he doesn't want to hear that he's the next great anything.
"He never talks about, 'Oh, I got this many likes on this picture,' or, 'Oh, I'm verified,'" says JD Douglas, San Joaquin Memorial sophomore guard.
He never has. When he was on a flight back from Argentina, headed to St. Louis for the Elite 100, a passenger saw him in his USA gear and asked if he had tried out for the USA team. He sheepishly told her that yes, he had made the team—not that he had won gold.
In a similar situation, when ABC30 interviewed him and asked him to bring his medals to showcase on the TV segment, he said he didn't want to bring the medals. He didn't want that type of attention.
"I just want people to look at me like I'm a normal kid," Green says, adding later: "My parents try to give me as much kid time as I can get. They always tell me, 'Have fun being a kid, because you're going to have to make business decisions soon.'"
A normal kid who trains in a normal gym.
Sort of. Green calls his favorite court the Dungeon. It's a small court in downtown Fresno that is so dim that you can barely see the lines. There is a lot of dust and little space between the court and the drab gray-cement walls. The windows have holes busted through them.
"It's rough," Marcus says.
To Green? It's perfect. He doesn't need the frills, the glitter. He releases jump shot after jump shot here, with Marcus, in any free time he has aside from his school, home and team responsibilities. Part of his motivation for doing so is the single biggest criticism he hears of his game: Jalen Green can't shoot.
Green's jump shot is a work in progress, though he is shooting 58 percent from the field this season (he shot 56 percent in 2017-18).
He never used to shoot, growing up. He was so athletic, so long, that he could easily get to the rim and didn't feel the need to pull. "I was very hesitant," Green says.
But once, during a tournament in eighth grade, his defender left him so much room—at least two feet—that the disrespect was too much for him to handle. So, standing at the three-point line, Green let it fly.
"Pure net," he says. "I was so shocked."
He's developed much more confidence since, but he knows there's more work to be done. That's always been his approach. He was doing full workouts with weight vests in sixth and seventh grade.
It irritates his parents that people think his journey has been easy. "They don't know he has fought and practiced and worked his butt off to be where he's at," Bree says. "It wasn't handed to him. We don't have the [money] to pay for [trainers]."
Few knew who he was in middle school. And, given that the recruiting process nowadays begins, more or less, in sixth grade, that meant he was behind.
Before he moved to Fresno at age nine, he lived even farther from all the big-time tournaments in Oakland and Los Angeles. He lived near the outskirts of Livingston, "in the woods," Green says, "the country."
He and his grandfather, Jamie, would play every day on a court with uneven pavement at the end of the driveway, when Green wasn't tending to the chickens, dogs, llamas, goats and horses near them. (He still loves animals and even aspires to be a veterinarian after his playing days are over.)
But by the time he moved to Fresno, he was focused on dunking. Every day, he practiced to pull off the feat. He had made a bet with Marcus that if he dunked before eighth grade, Marcus had to buy him a pair of Jordans.
One morning, Green woke up at 7 a.m. and thought: Today's the day. He put on his red Vans and threw down a one-handed dunk. Marcus bought him the Jordan 11 Concords.
He was good, then. But talk of being a future NBA pick good? Definitely not. At that time, people just saw him as a tall kid who didn't belong.
Marcus remembers the stares he and Green received while going to various high-level recruiting camps in seventh and eighth grade, like Pangos, West Coast Basketball and Chris Paul's camp. People told Green he should hold himself back, class-yearwise, because they believed he couldn't hang.
He saw the players ranked ahead of him and felt frustrated. But he kept working, finally breaking through with an impressive performance at Chris Paul's camp.
He's still working, not just in the Dungeon but in Oakland. His parents drive the two-and-a-half hours on Friday nights for Green's workouts at Brandon Payne's Accelerate Basketball (Payne is Stephen Curry's professional skills trainer). Then, his parents drive the two-and-a-half hours back. It's exhausting, but they do it all again on Saturday nights, when other kids Green knows are out partying.
"He had to start at the bottom and build his way to the top, so he still plays with that same chip. He still plays like he's a nobody," says Demetrius Porter, program director for Green's AAU team, Elite Basketball Organization, and a former Fresno State standout. "He enjoys where he's at, but at the same time, he remembers where he was, and that's why he works as hard as he does."
"The other day, we were talking," Porter says, "and Green was like: 'Man. I never thought this stuff would happen for me. Like, me? Me?"
"Over-rated!" the students chanted, between claps. "Over-rated!"
The students of Bullard High, San Joaquin's rival, wouldn't stop screaming during one timeout of the County/Metro Athletic Conference's championship game last season.
It was clear Green was the target. He looked out in the crowd and began to laugh. Then he joined in, chanting along and clapping, mocking his critics.
"Pretty sure we went on a 9-0 run after that," says Kyle Micheli, a San Joaquin Memorial senior forward.
Green is motivated by his perceived shortcomings: his jump shot, being too skinny or his age (some say he held himself back a year so he could dominate against younger competition, but he didn't). He finds another gear on the floor when he hears those comments.
"He's a dog," Marcus says. "He has that fight in him."
His family keeps him levelheaded, though. Bree, a former basketball player at Merced College, was a defensive terror. She's always on him about sliding his feet. Marcus spends hours with Green in the Dungeon, reminding him that the work will pay off. Green's also close with his best friend, Jahmai, who lives with the family, and Jurnee, his seven-year-old sister. At 4'1", she is the center of attention, often wearing a pink-and-purple shirt that says: My unicorn ate my homework. She can make Green crack a smile no matter his mood.
"I liked unicorns first," she says, setting the record straight. "And I'm a better dribbler than him."
Then she grows serious: "No one messes with my brother," she says.
But after the halftime buzzer sounded against Little Elm at the Thanksgiving Hoopfest, someone did. An opposing player purposely bumped Green. Players often go at Green, but this time, Bree felt the need to say something: "You didn't have to do that."
When Green saw the two talking, he went up to the player to defend his mom. "You got something to say?" Green said.
"This is Texas," Green remembers the player telling him. "This is Texas."
Nothing happened, physically, between them (the player eventually apologized to Bree after the game), but in that moment, Green just looked at the player and smiled.
He didn't say anything, but in his mind, he thought: "Texas? I'm from Fresno."
Mirin Fader is a Writer-At-Large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.