Someone asked Juan’ya Green, Niagara’s dynamic sophomore guard, if he was named after Boyz II Men lead singer Wanya Morris. A frown covered his face.
“Yeah man,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t know what my mother was thinking.”
It’s actually not hard to figure out. The R&B group was formed in Philadelphia, Green’s hometown, and around the time he was born their album “II” was No. 1 in the country. So Green, who has a sister named Yolanda and a brother Dwayne, was named after Morris. Different spelling, same pronunciation.
“She was kind of obsessed with them and she wanted to name me that,” Green said. “I really don’t like the name but I’ll go with it. It’s uncommon and a lot of people get it wrong and it gets on my nerves sometimes.”
His mother, Octavia Green, didn’t get a crooner out of the deal.
“Noooooo,” Green said. “Singing is not my thing.”
Basketball certainly is and Green is the leader of a Niagara (14-10, 10-3) team meting out frustration to its more experienced competitors in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, while trying to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. It’s been a dramatic elevation of a program that finished 23-42 in the two previous seasons.
While Green can’t carry a tune, he’s quite the conductor. The 2012 MAAC Freshman of the Year averages 16.3 points, second on the team to Antoine Mason, and is second in the MAAC behind Canisius College’s Billy Baron in assists at a clip of 5.2 a game. It is Green who provides an eye-popping array of floaters and high-arcing jump shots while always remembering to locate open teammates.
“Sometimes he forgets that he can do both,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said about Green’s ability to score and distribute. “You get caught up in the shooting and you get caught up in passing too much.
“If there’s anything where you want to criticize Juan’ya it is that he’s too nice a guy. Has to be a little nastier out there.”
During the final seconds of Niagara’s win two weeks ago over Canisius (15-9, 8-5), it was Green who alertly found Marvin Jordan on the opposite wing before the double team set. Jordan hit the shot that gave the Purple Eagles a 66-65 victory.
“I just knew to be shot ready and I trusted him to trust me,” Jordan said.
Green will lead the Purple Eagles in the rematch set for Sunday in the Gallagher Center.
“At the beginning of the year, we weren’t clicking together but as the season went on everybody just matured,” Green said. “Everybody just stepped up and filled their role. It’s not just one vocal leader on the team. If somebody is doing something wrong somebody is going to step up and say something.”
Niagara’s turning point came after a 77-67 loss at the University at Buffalo when the Purple Eagles were in the midst of a slump of four losses in five games. In the 15 games since, Niagara has gone 11-4 as Green continues his steady play.
“That kind of gave us a wake-up call,” Green said. “We needed to get it together and have a great season.”
Green, one of five Philly natives on the Purple Eagles’ roster, honed his game at Panapi Park in North Philadelphia. As a sixth grader he met Ameen Tanksley at a local AAU camp.
“We were on the same team and we didn’t like each other at first because we were both taking the most shots,” Green said.
“We were trying to outdo each other but after the camp was over, we just kind of clicked together.”
The next year Green and Tanksley made a pact to play college basketball together. They both visited Niagara in September 2010, and committed days later. The only other school to make offers to both players was VCU.
“We probably didn’t show it as much when we were on the visit, but when me and my brother got back to the hotel room we were so excited,” Tanksley said at the time.
Said Green: “I knew I wanted to come to school with Ameen. We both made that decision in seventh grade that we wanted to go to school together and when we took the visit here we liked everything about it.”
The next few weeks bring a deeper challenge. The Purple Eagles have dropped back-to-back games, which means the MAAC race is wide open. The losses may be a mere hiccup as Niagara seems to understand the delicate balance of chemistry. Green is more of a facilitator this season while Mason is the primary scorer.
Yet somehow, when the game is on the line, the ball finds its way to Green, Niagara’s lead vocalist.
“We have to stay mentally focused,” Green said. “We have to keep picking each other up when we’re down. I know last year a lot of games where we lost, a lot of people’s heads were down, no one was stepping up and saying anything about it. I think this year we matured a lot.”