By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jun 22 2009 11:18AM
The only sure thing in the NBA draft had one workout, with one team. He's done better.
"I can shoot better than that, and I should have," Blake Griffin said earlier this month, after working out for the Clippers, the team with the first pick in the draft -- and the team that will, barring pestilence or flood, select Griffin, the all-American from Oklahoma who is heads, shoulders, and 248 pounds above all other draft prospects.
The Clippers brought Griffin in for a dinner chat with the brass, including coach and GM Mike Dunleavy. The next day, they brought in some of their season ticket holders to take a look at the 6-foot-10 junior forward as he was put through a few drills -- including one at the end where Griffin showed his ballhandling skills by dribbling three balls at once. He shot fine close to the basket, but when he had to step out and shoot the jumper, he missed more than he made. His release point seemed to change and he drifted back a little when he shot. Unfortunately, rest of the NBA world, that's not going to keep Los Angeles from taking him.
"You can never say never about anything, obviously," Dunleavy told me after the workout, "but I don't know who the players are in this league that would fit into that category (for a potential trade of the first pick). Obviously, if the word 'LeBron' was spoken by anybody, somebody's door would open, clearly. There are a few guys in this league that would get moved. In the case of a pick like this, 99.9 percent of the time, you would keep it."
(There are two other words, I'm told, that would pique the Clippers' interest: "Chris" and "Paul." Other than that, no dice.)
Griffin heads a power forward class that is the second-best position group in the draft, behind point guard. There is size, strength, versatility, potential, strong work ethic and class throughout. There isn't quite as much depth as the point position, but you could go deep into the first round and still come up with a four who will be a part of your rotation for a long time.
To recap: the ratings are mine, based on conversations over the past few months with more than 30 NBA personnel directors, scouts and coaches, as well as head and assistant college coaches whose teams have played against the prospect's school in the past year. The measureables listed come from the official Chicago pre-draft camp list taken last month. Players who weren't invited to Chicago have a # next to their heights and weights, which are taken from the school or team's official Web site.
With Griffin, the Clippers have a great problem: four legit frontcourt players (centers Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby, and forward Zach Randolph), and playing time for just three. They'll alleviate that problem, probably before draft night, by dealing Kaman or Camby -- Randolph is a Dunleavy favorite -- leaving extensive playing time for Griffin. Griffin's been working out in San Francisco with former NBA coach Bob Hill. The wait is almost over, and the transition from BMOC to lowly NBA rookie will soon begin.
"This past month and a half, two months, has really been going by fast, especially with guys bringing me towels after every workout," Griffin said after the Clippers workout. "Talking to DeAndre (Jordan) and Eric Gordon a little bit, you hear you have to make a lot of donut runs. So I'm trying to find out where the closest one is, and if they can cut me a deal. I'll experience a lot of things as I go along, and try to learn on the fly."
Since no one under the Clippers has any shot at Griffin, most NBA personnel types haven't spent too much time on him in the last month or so, nor has he worked out for anyone besides Los Angeles. So I picked the brains of two college head coaches with extensive pro experience whose teams played Oklahoma last season, to ask them what Griffin is good at and what he'll need to work on at the pro level.
What Griffin is good at already:
COACH 1: Wow, what a terrific athlete. And he's another high character guy.
COACH 2: He can shoot the ball. He can handle the ball. He rebounds like a beast. I've got him as a 20-10 guy. That guy's motor is strong. (He) hit a turnaround jumper from like 15, 17 feet, and kissed it off the glass. I said that was a good shot. He came down and did it again. I said he's been practicing that shot. That wasn't no accident. He's really focused.
What Griffin needs to work on:
COACH 1: He needs more polish with his moves. He's such a terrific athlete that he's a little raw with his moves. He's going to have to get a big time move down low with a counter. In college he has a tendency to just shoot over people and that's not going to happen at the NBA level. He's going to have to be a better pick-and-pop shooter, but I think that's going to come with repetition.
COACH 2: The problem was when you talk to different people in the league, some people said you can double him, and some said if you double him he'll make the other players better.
What I like: Griffin calls everyone "sir" and "ma'am." Even me.
While Griffin has been on most teams' radar for the last two years, the 21-year-old Hill came on fast this season. He wasn't highly recruited out of high school, but Lute Olsen found him late in high school. He had to wait his turn at Arizona behind NBA prospects like Jerryd Bayless and Chase Budinger. But his junior season was his coming out party, as he averaged a double-double (18.3 points, 11 rebounds) for the Wildcats, improving his shooting range and solidifying himself as a strong post defender. It has left him a top-10 pick for sure, with Golden State, picking seventh, a solid possibility.
His quickness and leaping ability have NBA types salivating.
"One thing I liked was he had a good heart about him, a good spirit," said a Central Division executive. "It seemed like his teammates liked him, everybody in the arena liked him. He can step out on the floor. You talk about a guy that can step out and make shots? He makes them from 15-17 feet. I don't see him slipping, with that kind of range and that kind of size."
Hill also helped himself out last summer by going to Amar'e Stoudemire's Nike Skills Camp in Phoenix, where he worked out against future pro big men like Griffin. At least one Pac-10 coach -- whose team played Arizona this season -- noticed the difference between the 2007 and the 2008 Hill.
"He spent a lot of time with Stoudemire and you could tell the mannerisms were there," the coach said. "He's kind of got the same mannerisms out there on the floor. He's a very good athlete. Another guy capable of blocking shots. He can face up to 17. He's a talented, talented kid with a good upside. Even though he's older he's still young in a lot of aspects. I think it's important who you put around him, because he's an impressionable young guy. Leadership is important where he goes."
Hill agrees that he'll need help to be a good pro. (That's a real good sign, by the way.)
"If I'm with the right coach, to help me get moves down, the post moves down, and I can do the moves quick, I can be hard to stop," Hill said during the Chicago camp. "I'm working on my footwork more and more every day, and working with (trainer) Tim Grover, it's getting real good right now ... I just started playing organized basketball in high school. So I still have a ways to go, a lot of progression to go ... I just need somebody to sit down with me and be on the court with me to help me get ready for the next level."
By contrast, the concern with Hansbrough, like it is for many North Carolina players, is that he could well have maxed out in college. Roy Williams, like Dean Smith before him, maximizes the production for most of his players. The 6-foot-9 Hansbrough couldn't have done much more in four years in Chapel Hill than he did: he's the ACC's all-time leading scorer, North Carolina's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, the recipient, in 2008, of all six major college player of the year awards (including the Naismith, Rupp Oscar Robertson and Wooden trophies) and a three-time all-America.
Oh, and his Tar Heels won the national championship last season.
But Hansbrough is determined to be more than a high-energy reserve, as many NBA types initially believed would be his fate. He showed up in Chicago all cut up (down 16 pounds from his listed weight at UNC) and, one Atlantic Division executive said, helped himself quite a bit by showing he had improved his lateral movement. That, combined with strong individual and group workouts, has Hansbrough's stock shooting up at just the right time, with Indiana, in no mood to deal with character issues, a strong possibility at 13.
Everyone knows Hansbrough will give you everything he's got. But can he score in the low post with regularity? Can he defend the post? Can he rebound every night against taller opponents? Can he improve as a passer?
"He'll still be aggressive and get some of the garbage stuff, but nobody's going for the stuff that he did in college," says an ACC assistant whose team played Carolina last season. "I would be concerned about his ability to be anything more than a one-dimensional, low post (player). He does everything off of two feet. And I have never, in two years, seen him shoot anything with his left hand."
Hansbrough isn't deterred.
"I think I'm expanding my game a lot to prepare myself for the NBA," he said during Chicago. "I worked on my outside jump shot a lot, and I think that's coming along. I'm getting a lot more skills, moves down, like ballhandling, and I've been working a lot on my left hand."
Johnson doesn't have Hansbrough's accolades, but he quickly made a name for himself on a Wake Forest team that started out 16-0 and was ranked No. 1 in January. However, the Deacons faded badly by season's end and went out meekly in the NCAAs, lending credence to the theory that there was tension between prospective NBAers Johnson, guard Jeff Teague and forward Al-Faroqu Aminu (who decided to stay in school for his sophomore season). For their part, Johnson and Teague have told prospective teams the same thing: they're best friends, and best friends occasionally bicker.
"They were under the radar and then they were No. 1 and they didnt know how to handle it," says a Northwest Division personnel man. "They were very young kids."
And in the pros, handling egos is one of a thousand jobs a head coach has to deal with every day. It won't keep Johnson from going in the first round, with a range from 8 (New York) to 14 (Phoenix) the most likely scenario.
Says a Northwest executive: "He's my kind of player because I like size at the (three) position ... he'll succeed at our level because he's tough, with perimeter skills."
The tough part is not just talk: Johnson's father, Willie "The Bam" Johnson, is a seven-time world kickboxing champion. Willie's wife, Vi, is a former Blood from Oceanside, Ca., who is a tae kwon do champion in her own right ("someone told me she benches 280," says an Atlantic Division exec). According to a Sports Illustrated account, seven of Johnson's eight brothers and sisters are black belts (the other is a blue belt). By the time he got to Wake, James Johnson was himself a sixth degree black belt, and undefeated as a kickboxer in 20 bouts.
Johnson could play both forward positions, and at 257 pounds, if he plays the three he'll be like Rodney Rogers, another former Demon Deacon.
While not a great athlete, according to scouts, he can play inside and out and make plays from the forward position, and he can shoot well enough to keep defenses honest in the pros.
Even though Blair is extremely short for an NBA power forward, that 7-foot-2 wingspan is a great equalizer, and he showed he could play big in a big college conference. Everyone in the league remembers how well Blair played against Hasheem Thabeet in a key Big East game in February, when Blair went for 23 points and 22 rebounds and flipped Thabeet over going for a rebound. But there are serious concerns about both of Blair's knees; he tore both of his ACLs in high school and had surgery on each knee. And while he played through high school and two years at Pitt, MRIs in Chicago revealed that he may have no ACLs remaining in either knee.
But Blair has had strong workouts, shooting well for a number of teams, and there is some history of players coming out of college with serious concerns about their knees, like Sidney Moncrief, who wound up having long, productive NBA careers. Blair is still likely to go high in the first round, but if he were to start to slide, he could slide a long way.
"The kid is a monster rebounder," says a Southwest Division executive. "If he gets his hands on a rebound, it's his. You put him in a playoff game tonight and he rebounds."
He will have to show that he can defend and that he can play below the rim in the pros. But if he turns out like Glen Davis, that wouldn't be so bad.
"He doesn't score like Big Baby, but he could be like that," says a Big East coach whose team played Pitt this season. "He's got to go with a team that's already got some bigs, where he could come in. He's not (Jason) Maxiell. He's not long like Maxiell. But he's going to have to play that kind of role. Wherever he goes he's going to get some playing time because he plays hard and he plays with intensity. Maybe if he loses a few more pounds he could be a good defender."
Heytvelt doesn't have size issues; he fits the bill of an NBA four. And in a league where power forwards, increasingly, are asked to step behind the 3-point line and be a threat, Heytvelt -- who shot 40 percent from behind the arc last season -- can do that. Two teams that plays that way -- San Antonio and Houston, who both would need to get themselves back into the first round -- might be willing to take a flier on Heytvelt.
But that team will have to believe that Heytvelt is a different guy than he was at the start of his college career, when he was suspended from the Bulldogs after a 2007 arrest for possession of hallucionogenic mushrooms. After going through an intervention program, he was reinstated in time for his junior season, and he's stayed clean since. He also played through a stress fracture his junior season.
Says a Southwest Division personnel director: "He obviously had the issues at Gonzaga. He's met that head-on in the interviews and done fine with that. If you move past that, and you can trust him, then it becomes teams that like shooting big men. Fit is going to be very important there. Some teams want traditional back to the basket bigs, and if they don't value spacing then he's not your guy. He's a good shooter. (But) he could be a specilist. It's not a sure thing to see him as a fulltime guy."
Gibson is more of a longshot, but some NBA people think he can stick with his effort and shot-blocking ability.
"He's got a chance to play in the league," a Southwest GM says. "He plays hard. He can block shots. He's always in the mix. He's always around the ball. You can pick apart his game. I don't know what his ceiling is as an offensive player, but as a late first, early second, he can play in the league. Especially a guy that likes to rebound and get his hands dirty."
Pendergraph is limited offensively, but like Gibson, he throws his body around and gives a big-time effort. Shooting almost 80 percent from the foul line last season for the Sun Devils is a good line on the resume, too.
Says a Pac-10 coach about Pendergraph: "He's a physical player. Big, wide body ... a physical low post player. I'm not sure he has the size to play pure center. He doesn't mind mixing it up. He has a good understanding for the game, playing for Herb (Sendek, the ASU coach). He understands spacing and running plays. A very physical guy in our conference."
Cunningham improved dramatically at Villanova, increasing his range and becoming the lynchpin to the Wildcats' Final Four run. Whether that's enough to make an NBA team is up in the air, but he'll certainly be in someone's camp if he's not drafted. The same goes for Taggert, who started the last couple of seasons for a Final Two team and a Sweet 16 team. He can shoot the ball well for his position and showed he could score with either hand at Memphis. Good workouts of late could get him a second-round look.
Among the others, Brockman had a great performance at Portsmouth Invitational and has four years of bruising Pac 10 opponents on DVD, but a permanent NBA job is still a longshot. Norel, who played with Ricky Rubio in Spain, could be drafted and squirrled away by a second-round team for a few years while he adds weight and improves his overall game.
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