Pope John Paul II senior Justin Green (above, last season) will play his college ball at D-III Catholic U (D.C.) (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Justin Green had a choice to make going into his sophomore year of high school.
Option A: stay at La Salle College HS, where he’d try to make the varsity roster on a team that was returning 11 seniors, at a school more than a half-hour from his Collegeville home.
Option B: go to Pope John Paul II, where he’d get a chance to play with kids he’d known since elementary school and beforehand — as well as his brother — at a school less than 10 minutes from home.
“My friends were all at PJP,” Green said by phone last week. “They were all reaching out after my freshman year at La Salle [...] ‘We just hired a new coach and everyone’s excited to play for him, we think if you come back, we could build something special.”
All the reasons added together, it wasn’t exactly a tough decision.
Three years later, as he graduates from PJP II, it’s also one Green can look back on with plenty of confidence and know he made the right call. Even though his senior year didn’t go as planned, Green was a major reason a relatively-new Golden Panthers program continued to reach new heights.
“I talk to my coaches, and my teammates, all the other seniors, and I think we can appreciate what we did,” he said. “I don’t think anyone expected us to get so good, so quick.”
The year before Green and head coach Brendan Stanton arrived at Pope John Paul II, which opened in 2010 as a merger of Kennedy-Kenrick Catholic School and St. Pius X High School, the team had won just six games. The Golden Panthers were actually quite strong in their first-ever season (18-8, 13-3 Pioneer Athletic Conference) but hadn’t been able to maintain that level of success, and Stanton was hired in the summer of 2018 to bring some new life to the program.
Stanton heard from his players that one of their former schoolmates and teammates was transferring into the school, but didn’t know what to expect until he saw the lanky wing forward, who was still working his way towards what would become a 6-foot-5, 185-pound frame.
“He was just super locked in and super competitive,” Stanton recalled. “We had a good talk about what he wanted to do [...] he wanted to try and sort of build his own thing here and try to win with the guys he grew up playing basketball with.”
That 2018-19 season, PJP II went 12-12 (7-3 PAC Frontier), which was good enough for a division championship, but they lost to Methacton in the PAC semifinals and Lower Moreland in the District 1 4A playoffs.
Last year was the breakthrough: spurred by a midseason 11-game winning streak, the Golden Panthers went 21-6, beat Lower Moreland in the district championship and won two state playoff games before COVID cancelled the season in the PIAA 4A quarterfinals. Green was a two-way force, the one of the team’s go-to bucket getters along with senior Drew McKeon as well as a talented defender and rim protector, racking up double-doubles with regularity.
Justin Green (above, in February 2020) helped lead PJP to a record-setting year as a junior. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
There’s no doubt Green was at his happiest playing with the kids he’d grown up with: Liam McCarthy and Liam Haffey were both starters for the Golden Panthers, as was his younger brother by a year, Kevin Green. It was a group that thrived off selfless play, cutting and passing, driving and kicking, controlling the tempo and making shots when they needed.
“Me and Luke, we played YMCA basketball together like kindergarten or pre-K and my brother was on that team too, so us three have been playing together forever,” Green said. “Third grade, whenever travel basketball started for Spring-Ford, that’s when Liam and I played together...we were even on AAU teams together, too.”
Justin Green’s senior season didn’t provide the redemption he was hoping for. Two separate ankle injuries — one on each ankle, a high-ankle sprain suffered on his right ankle the week before the season started, and a left ankle sprain suffered only a few games after his return.
“I kind of freaked out right away, just because I had struggled with injuries all season,” he said, “and in the past, I’d never really had any injury history. But it happened so much this year, my senior year, you work so hard for your senior year — and in that moment I just couldn’t get all the bad thoughts out of my head.”
Green gave a lot of credit to assistant coach Paul Tagliatella and the team trainer for helping him through the tough times; it helped that even with him on the sideline, his team kept winning.
The Golden Panthers went 14-2 (9-0 PAC) in the pandemic-shortened 2021 season, winning the Frontier division in dominating fashion before beating New Hope-Solebury in the district championship game. That gave their senior a chance to return for a state playoff rematch against the Allentown Central Catholic team they’d beaten in the second round the year before.
“Even that game I just couldn’t catch a break,” Green said of the 44-42 loss to Central Catholic, which went on to win the state title. “I had two fouls [in the] the first quarter, so I played two minutes in the first, and then a minute or so in the second I picked up my third and I was out the whole half, and then I was good through the third, and in the fourth I picked up two cheap ones.”
Speaking several weeks after the season ended, Green already had time to appreciate what had happened the last three years, even if it didn’t end quite the way he’d hoped. Despite the injuries, he was still recruited heavily by several Division III programs, committing to Catholic U (D.C.) midway through the season. Playing under third-year head coach Aaron Kelly, he’ll be on a roster that includes a couple other local products in former Bishop Shanahan point guard David Angelo and former La Salle College HS guard Jake Timby.
He’ll depart for college this fall leaving the program in good hands: his brother returns along with fellow returning starters J.P. Baron and Jaden Workman, both seniors. More importantly, the work ethic he helped Stanton install in the program should carry on for at least a couple more years.
“I tell him all the time that the reason we won the PAC championship this year with him missing two-thirds of the season was because of everything he did leading up to that,” Stanton said. “Building the culture, how locked in everybody was and how the kids expected to win, and when he joined the program I don’t think that was the identity at all.”
Another Green brother, Jason, will be in 8th grade next year, and Justin Green expects him to carry on the family legacy. But this season might not be the last time that the Green siblings play together: Catholic is also recruiting Kevin Green, a 6-1 guard, and Justin says that while he won’t interfere with the Catholic coaches’ thoughts on his brother, he’ll certainly try to convince Kevin to join him in the nation’s capital the following year.
“We definitely have those conversations, just because we love playing so much together,” he said. “I definitely want to try and influence him but the coaches at Catholic, I trust them to do their job.”