In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be enlightening. Also see Michael David Smith's original NFL Every Play Counts at Fanhouse.com.
When Oklahoma's Blake Griffin squared off with North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough Sunday in the NCAA tournament's South Regional Final, it was the most anticipated individual matchup of the season. After all, the meeting marked the first time two national players of the year had faced each other in college in nearly three decades. The matchup was also magnified by the setting, with a spot in the Final Four on the line. As a result, it seemed like a natural to TiVo for an Every Play Counts breakdown.
Having already done an Every Play Counts looking at Hansbrough, I wanted to spend this game looking primarily at Griffin with two possible storylines. Had Oklahoma won, the focus would likely have been on how opponents should defend him in the Final Four. A loss would shift attention to how Griffin's skills translate to the NBA.
In the first half, a different story emerged, as North Carolina's aggressive double-teams neutralized Griffin. He was held scoreless for the game's first eleven-and-a-half minutes. Thereafter, Griffin was able to get going on his way to 23 points and 16 rebounds. In the big picture of the Tar Heels' 72-60 victory, his performance was overshadowed by North Carolina's unstoppable offense and the Sooners' dismal 2-for-19 shooting from beyond the three-point line. Still, as we prepare for a draft in which Griffin will likely be the top overall pick, there are interesting lessons to be taken from his effort.
Naturally, Griffin spent most of his time on offense in the low post. Oklahoma seeks to get Griffin post position in a variety of ways, whether it's out of pick-and-rolls on the perimeter or with him coming off of block-to-block screens to create some space. All told, I counted 24 touches in the post for Griffin, resulting in seven of his 12 shot attempts and three additional trips to the free-throw line.
There was nothing fancy about what the Tar Heels did defensively to Griffin in the post. They simply committed a second man to him quickly, leaving Griffin little choice but to pass. The key to North Carolina's defensive effort was the rotations behind the double-team, which took away the open three-pointers an offense needs to make the opposition pay for doubling. When the Sooners did get open looks, they were unable to convert them. The Tar Heels did a good job of bringing a second big man at times to create difficult passing lanes for Griffin without leaving the middle of the court vulnerable; however, point guard Ty Lawson brought the double more often than not.
The differences when Griffin got going were relatively subtle. He was able to create some opportunities elsewhere, off of second chances and even one isolation play, but Oklahoma continued going to him in the post. Griffin did a better job of sealing defenders to get an advantage over them when he turned and went quickly to the basket and successfully forced a couple of plays this way.
Griffin's most impressive offensive play came with a little under eight minutes left in the first half. Facing reserve big man Tyler Zeller, Griffin caught the ball in the left block, quickly turned to face the basket and blew past Zeller to the basket before finishing with a dunk. Athletically, Griffin's best attribute might be his explosiveness around the basket.
North Carolina was able to take away from Griffin two of his primary sources of offense--second-chance scores and transition. Griffin had six offensive boards, but turned them into just a pair of shots. He did not create a single shot out of transition, though he did get to the free-throw line when fouled in the open court by Lawson during the first half. The high-octane Tar Heels are one of the few teams that can consistently keep Griffin from beating them down the court.
The disappointing aspect of Griffin's offensive game was his screen-setting. I tracked him participating in five high pick-and-rolls and nine side pick-and-rolls, but I'm not certain he made contact on his screens on any of them. In fairness to Griffin, part of this may be the Sooners' desire to keep their meal ticket away from foul trouble given the inconsistent way screens are officiated. Still, these plays were relatively ineffective, rarely freeing the guard while only occasionally giving Griffin good position on his roll to the basket.
While Griffin looks like a can't-miss prospect on offense, his ability to contribute defensively at the NBA level is a much bigger question mark. Nothing I saw in this matchup eased those concerns. If I had to use one word to describe Griffin's defense, it would be "inactive." His older brother Taylor got the assignment of defending Hansbrough, leaving Griffin to work against Deon Thompson and Ed Davis. Griffin did a decent job individually against these players, both secondary options in the North Carolina offense.
Where questions really start to emerge is watching Griffin's help defense--as in, "where is it?" I tracked Griffin as forcing just one miss in 38 minutes as a help defender, while allowing 3.5 scores in these situations (the half coming on a play where he and his brother were both defending). The assertiveness that is a staple of Griffin's game on offense is lacking at the defensive end. I'd describe him as playing "halfway defense"--halfway between stepping up and taking on a driving player and sticking with his own man. The result, for a Tar Heels squad that is effective shooting off the dribble, was relatively easy pull-up looks.
Griffin averaged 1.2 blocks per game this season, but given his size and athleticism he should have been doing much more. Again, the foul trouble issue is a counterpoint, but only to an extent. Griffin could surely do a better job of contesting shots without putting himself in danger of fouling. His instincts seem to be lacking. Griffin also appears to be especially concerned with maintaining rebounding position, which works to the benefit of his boardwork but to the detriment of his help defense.
At other times, Griffin hurt his team by failing to be more attentive on the ball. One play in particular illustrated this. After going for a steal, Griffin was out of position and well off his man, Zeller, who was in the mid post to the left of the paint. That allowed Zeller plenty of room to zip a pass in to Hansbrough, who had position on Taylor Griffin and dunked home two points. Better defensive pressure would have made that pass impossible.
It's a little more difficult to evaluate Griffin's performance defending the pick-and-roll without knowing what he's been asked to do by the Oklahoma coaching staff. However, it seems apparent Griffin could help himself out by moving laterally against the ballhandler. Instead, he tends to show or hedge out directly towards the player with the ball, ending up in the path of his own teammate defending the ball and creating a screen of his own. I did see one play where Griffin did a very good job of moving his feet; he just needs to do this more consistently.
Griffin's gaudy scoring and rebounding totals are legitimate, and surely will translate to the NBA level, but they are not enough. As plus-minus analysis has tended to show us, these "intangibles" that don't show up in the box score can be crucially important to teams. To achieve the greatness predicted for him, Griffin will have to develop the rest of his game. Fortunately, the weaknesses that showed up in paying close attention to Griffin's performance are ones that can be improved upon. I think he's got the ability to become a credible screener and at least average as a help and pick-and-roll defender. Surely, whichever team ends up landing the top pick in next month's NBA Draft Lottery will be hoping for just that result.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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