Australian prep star Josh Green continues his rise at Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. -- When Josh Green's time at the University of Arizona is done, he'll look back at a preseason scrimmage that forever changed him as a basketball player.

Green, a highly touted incoming 5-star recruit, had set his sights on a scrimmage with St. Mary's in mid-October. It was going to be his first competition against someone other than his teammates since arriving in Tucson.

Over the summer, however, the Australia native had to take time to recover from offseason labrum surgery. His left labrum had been slowly tearing during his highly successful final season in high school (winning the Geico National Championship, and earning McDonald's All-American honors), but was unaware of it except for some nagging shoulder pain. He finally learned about the tear during the Nike Hoop Summit in April.

A few weeks later he had his second shoulder surgery in two years. The first was on his right shoulder in 2018. Coming off April's procedure, Green was limited to just shooting until late August. That made the scrimmage against St. Mary's all the more important to him.

Now, almost three months into his freshman season, his team is ranked 16th in the country and takes on St. John's on Saturday (ESPN 2,10 PM ET). In that time, the Australia native has established himself as a likely first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. He's currently projected to go No. 16 to the Orlando Magic by ESPN NBA Draft Insiders Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz in their latest mock draft. Teammate and best friend Nico Mannion is projected at No. 7 to the Chicago Bulls. Indeed, the draft could have a very Australian tilt with Americans LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton both currently playing in Australia's NBL and also projected as lottery picks.

But about that scrimmage. After rehab, when Green was fully cleared to play, he didn't waste any time. With access to Arizona's facilities, he started making up for lost time on the court and in the weight room, putting on 15 pounds of muscle. He would need it against St. Mary's, who boasted a roster full of fellow Aussies who loved to play physical. It's the reason Miller schedules a scrimmage against the Gaels every season.

Green had been working hard and making progress. He finally felt healthy. But Miller said he saw something Green didn't.

"Early on in practice, although his effort was always outstanding, his play wasn't," Miller said. "Just think back to his surgeries and just how far he had to come physically."

Miller didn't start Green in the scrimmage. Green felt blindsided.

"I was upset to an extent because I worked so hard," Green said.

Green didn't play well against St. Mary's, finishing with eight fouls. Miller saw it all coming.

"Nothing went well for him in that scrimmage," Miller said. "In his mind, I'm sure his world felt like it was caving in," Miller said.

What Green didn't know was that he wasn't the first Wildcats star to struggle in that same scrimmage, joining the likes of Aaron Gordon and Stanley Johnson among those who just didn't play well in the annual tune-up against St. Mary's.

After the scrimmage, Green and Miller sat down. "He got into me," Green said. "He told me what I need to do and the way I need to come about it, and that really sunk into me. Coach Miller never got into me like that before, so that's when it started clicking that I needed to pick it up."

Green had two choices after his meeting with Miller: He could brush off Miller's words and continue playing like he thought he should or he could listen to his head coach. He chose the latter, then decided there were two ways he could get better: focus on playing defense and start watching film.

"It was one of those moments where I came into realization, like, 'Man, I'm gonna step it up now and take my game to a whole other level,'" Green said. "I'm not going to let anybody score on me no more. I'm too competitive to allow somebody to score on me."

Blessed with a 6-foot-11 wingspan and a voracious appetite for game film, Green has embraced playing defense, wanting it to become the part of his game that separates him from other players. And so far, through 12 games, it has. He's tied for fifth in the country among freshmen with 21 steals, which leads the Wildcats.

"I've really taken pride in my defense," Green said. "I feel like not many people will get up and take pride in defense like I do."

Green, whose parents both played basketball professionally in Australia, also has a clarity that not many other players his age share: He doesn't feel compelled to score in order to impact a game.

"He knows he's talented on that side of the ball, but, man, there's very few freshmen who want to be great on defense, who know they can impact winning by being a prominent defensive player," Miller said. "It's something you sell a lot as a coach. Not everyone buys it. Josh really has bought it."

At one point this season, he asked Miller for film of former Wildcats star Andre Iguodala. Green wanted to see what Iguodala, who's similarly sized to Green and is also a defensive stalwart, played like when he was in college.

Green's admits he's "always been kind of the quiet kid." Mannion should know. He has known Green since they roomed and played together during the high school summer circuit. He remembers Green not talking unless someone asked him a question. It took him a while to open up then, just like it has at Arizona. "If he doesn't know you, he's 'super quiet,'" said Mannion.

This runs contrary to Green's active social profile, where he's amassed 124,000 followers on his Instagram account. But Mannion is the first to attest -- perhaps testify -- that his buddy is the ultimate prankster. "He and I just go back and forth on playing jokes on each other, then posting on Snapchat. But Josh is so quiet you'd never think he was such a prankster."

But it is that familiarity with Mannion that has Wildcats fans so excited. Rare is it that a freshman backcourt comes with such built-in chemistry. Against Gonzaga early in the first half, Mannion found Green cutting across the lane for a thunderous alley-oop dunk.

"Not many colleges can say they have a point guard and shooting guard who have played together for four years or so," Green said. "It makes for great chemistry, and I think you can see it on the court."

Miller began actively recruiting Green during Green's freshman year of high school. Green established himself on the elite high school circuit after his family relocated from Sydney, Australia, to Phoenix in 2014. He played his freshman season at Mountain Ridge High School and then transferred to Hillcrest Prep, a private school that featured both future Phoenix Suns center DeAndre Ayton (a former Arizona Wildcat with whom Green is very close), and Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley III on the same team.

"Coach Miller and his staff had followed Josh starting at a very young age," said Cahla Green, Josh's mom. "They believed in him and they stayed in contact. They've never pressured him and I just know Josh felt really comfortable with Coach Miller and the school."

Then Green transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where he spent his final two high school seasons. There Green was paired with teammates who were as good as he was -- a rarity in high school basketball -- and gave him opportunities to face competition at that high level. It challenged him to grow up quickly, living on his own in what amounted to a college setting. He showed up in Tucson having already learned how to balance school and basketball without the guidance from his parents. Green stepped into Tucson more mature than most, if not all, of his fellow freshmen.

Still, Miller says Green does get frustrated and stresses out when things don't go well right away or he doesn't score enough. He's talked with Green about taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture -- he's playing high-level Division I basketball five years after moving to America and is one step away from the NBA.

But getting a 19-year-old -- no matter how mature he is -- to see the big picture is as hard as one would think, Miller said.

"It's crazy to think that me, some kid from Australia and moved straight to the desert in Phoenix -- it was a big adjustment. But I feel I've learned a lot on and off the court. But I'm really just focused on each game while I'm here. Whatever happens after that, happens."

Miller also is figuring out how to coach Green, and that means giving the freshman swingman constant feedback, both good and bad.

Green's already shown a willingness to adapt his game, making defense a focal point of his season. He's working on becoming more vocal and a leader on the court. How much better can he get? The ceiling is quite high, said Miller.

"I think, for sure, and he's already proven it, he can be one of the best freshmen in college basketball," Miller said. "The Pac-12 Conference has some incredibly talented young freshmen. He's one of them. And, depending on our team and the season, I think he can have just an incredible freshman year."

Being a step away from the NBA has started to sink in for Green. He grew up watching NBA games -- he never missed the annual Christmas Day games. He was a typical teenage fan, wearing jerseys and loving Kobe Bryant. He saw Bryant and the Lakers face LeBron James' Miami Heat in one of those Christmas Day games during a trip to the United States before his family moved.

Now, he could be a few months from joining their ranks.

"To a certain extent, it's insane," Green said. "It's something which a lot of kids think about, but at the same time for me right now, my biggest thing is try not to think about that. "My goal has been to practice, getting to be the best player I can be because at the same time, it might be one step away but at the same time you want to make sure you're ready for it."