In the past two seasons, Big 12 fans have been blessed to watch Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley, each of whom went in the top two picks of the last two NBA drafts. This year, the two major NBA Draft Web sites (NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com) both have another Big 12 forward--Oklahoma's Blake Griffin--projected to be selected first in the June draft. Griffin is not the smooth, silky, skilled Durant/Beasley type, but rather the rugged, punch-you-in-the-mouth variety of forward, cut from the cloth of a previous generation. Through his first ten games this season, Griffin is averaging 23.1 points and an eye-popping 15.1 rebounds per game. Shooting 67.5% from the floor, Griffin has notched a double-double in eight of his team's ten games thus far, and the Sooners have started the season 10-0.
While Durant relied on athletically gifted slice-and-dice moves, and Beasley on an absolutely killer face-up game from the elbow area, Griffin is more of a throwback, a back-to-the-basket player. He prefers to set up on the right block and attack the middle of the lane with a hard, deliberate dribble. Griffin keeps the defense off-balance by varying the cadence of his attack, sometimes attacking hard from the start, sometimes slowly getting into his move.
His real strengths are his counter-move and spin-move capabilities. Because he is so strong, he forces a defender to sit on his high shoulder or risk getting abused in the middle of the floor. Griffin reads this situation well, which sets up his counter and spin moves. This gives him a wide range of maneuvers and ways to score as a back-to-basket player. It would be interesting to see if this type of approach would be effective against a player that is as big and strong as Griffin is, but since there are so few players that meet those qualifications in college basketball, we may have to wait until the next level to really get a feel for how he addresses that challenge.
Griffin's positioning on the block is generally good. He seals his man well, and uses inside pivots to gain an advantage over a defender who attempts to root him off the block or to front him. He could use a lower body position, in particular when he squares off against players that are as big or larger than him. A good player for Griffin to watch in this regard is Tyler Hansbrough at UNC, who is continuously as low and active as a post player can be to create position.
Griffin's face-up game, however, needs a fair amount of work. Not a polished jump-shooter, Griffin operates well in straight lines but struggles to change speed and direction heading at the goal. As a result, good defenders will challenge him to finish without committing offensive fouls, and encountering great help defenses in the NBA will really confound his ability to simply overpower players at the college level. He has real problems with slowing down and plays heavy on his feet, which helps him in the post but hurts him on face-up drives.
Griffin is a mediocre free-throw shooter, hitting just over 60% of his shots from the charity stripe this season. For a player of his type, who encourages contact and constantly draws second defenders who attempt to reach in to stop him, this weakness probably costs him three or four points per game at the college level. This weakness will only be amplified at the next level, where he won't be fouled as much but where he could really make a mark as a point-scorer.
Griffin is a strong ballhandler and passer, especially noticeable out of double-teams. This shows a great feel for the game. A willing passer, Griffin finds teammates both cutting and opposite his position for threes. This is a good trait for him to refine as he makes the jump, because so many NBA offenses stress reading the floor out of the post.
Defensively, Griffin has some deficiencies that will need to be overcome, or he will find himself in the same position as both Durant and Beasley--criticized heavily. Reasonably physical, Griffin also does a fair job moving his feet. His activity level, however, is mediocre at best. He seems largely disinterested in off-ball team defense except when he can position for a blocked shot, and on-ball he is content to stay in front of his man without really challenging the offense. This is one area where he will be in for a rude awakening at the next level, where the teams that are successful preach the right way to play on the defensive end of the floor.
Griffin excels at rebounding. Offensively, Griffin hunts tip-in opportunities, which is something many players should look for but don't. One thing that scouts will look for out of Griffin is how aggressive he is on the offensive glass. In particular, they will assess how many steps Griffin takes toward the offensive basket when a shot goes up. While he does take some possessions off, the vast majority of the time he takes at least three steps toward the basket. This is outstanding for an offensive rebounder and shows that Griffin understands the value of cleaning the offensive glass.
On the defensive glass, Griffin truly excels as an out-of-area rebounder. He not only gobbles up rebounds that come down directly in his general area, but he seeks out rebounds that are at least five or six feet away from him. This is what allowed him to lead the country in rebounding through his first ten games this season, and it is the kind of characteristic that will give him high contract numbers as an NBA player.
There are a number of miscellaneous factors that also must be counted when scouting a player. For example, Griffin does an uneven job racing the floor from end to end, even offensively. When he does turn on the jets, he tends to score--but he only occasionally truly races the floor to get to the rim. While some of this is a function of Oklahoma's pace, there is no way that Coach Jeff Capel could not want Griffin to run the floor, plant himself at the front of the rim, and score easy baskets. He will want to do that more at the next level. One can see Griffin engaged in positive interactions with his teammates, encouraging them and pleased for them when they perform well. This shows a strong sense of team and maturity. His "motor," or will to perform no matter the circumstances, is strong as well. This will be noticeable at the next level, where attention to playing hard can earn a player opportunities on the court. So few players really work as hard as they could, but Griffin seems to be one of those players for whom this will never be an issue.
Blake Griffin is an absolute bear on the boards, especially against players his own size or smaller. His athleticism around the tin is well above average, and while he is not a quick or repetitive jumper, he is a powerful attacker on the glass. He possesses good instincts with his back to the basket and more than one or two ways to score from that position. Griffin uses his strength to his advantage and his counters, spins and shot fakes give him a variety of finishing moves to choose from. A strong passer, he can impact the game in a number of different ways with his energy and motor.
A substandard (or at least unproven) jump shooter, Griffin is only fair in the face-up game. He is not particularly light on his feet and that prevents him from exploding past defenders, and his inability to change direction and speed hurts him when encountering strong help-side opposition. There are small things dealing with his consistency of execution that could be improved in order to compensate for these deficiencies, and Griffin must shore up his weak foul-shooting in order to really score at the next level.
Griffin seems an amalgam of a number of players currently in the league. There are aspects of his game that would remind one of Carlos Boozer, though Boozer is a much more polished face-the-basket type of player and not quite the power player that Griffin is. Elton Brand comes to mind as well, though Brand is definitely more of a varied scoring threat than Griffin is. Aspects of Griffin's game can be seen in David Lee and Udonis Haslem as well, which are both good signs for his future.
In the NBA, expect Griffin to continue to rebound the ball at an outstanding rate and be more of a garbage scorer early in his career with more opportunities to put up numbers as his game grows, in particular his ability to hit a jump shot. He is a lock as a top-two pick and will have an impact on someone's roster as a starting power forward from day one, however, his long-term status without improvement is likely to be that of a role player off the bench who provides energy, rebounding and the occasional scoring outburst. If, however, he refines his face-up game, leans out slightly and is able to develop explosion toward the goal, he could break from this mold and be a high-level contributing starter for an NBA playoff team.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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