Posted Sep 27 2010 6:54PM - Updated Sep 27 2010 7:01PM
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Blake Griffin bent his chiseled 6-foot-10 frame to the floor, rapping his knuckles three times on the hardwood of the Los Angeles Clippers' training complex.
Nearly a year after his first NBA season ended before it even started with a broken left kneecap, the Clippers' No. 1 pick is perfectly healthy and cautiously optimistic about a major reboot of both his career and his long-struggling franchise's fortunes.
"I guess I'm still considered a rookie, but last year was very valuable," Griffin said Monday before the club officially began training camp. "I don't think the guys realize I'm still a rookie. They haven't made me do any of the rookie hazing yet. If we could not tell them, that would be great."
Griffin's health is only one reason for bold talk by new coach Vinny Del Negro and the Clippers, who have had just one winning season in the past 18 years. Los Angeles went 29-53 last season, dismissing coach and general manager Mike Dunleavy along the way.
The Clippers replaced Dunleavy with Del Negro and general manager Neil Olshey, and both are vocally confident in their revamped team's ability to contend for a playoff spot. It's hard to argue against the Clippers on paper, not with a core composed of Griffin, emerging Team USA guard Eric Gordon, All-Star center Chris Kaman, veteran point guard Baron Davis and a talented supporting cast.
"It's definitely a better vibe than we've ever had," said Gordon, who feels no exhaustion from his lengthy run with the U.S. team to the world championship. "We've got a lot of high-character guys who are also really talented. We've had talent before and haven't really been able to get it together, but I think this coaching staff can do it."
Not everything was sunny on an abnormally hot day in Playa Vista: Del Negro and Olshey both lightly criticized Davis for reporting to training camp out of shape. Davis, a recent Emmy nominee for his documentary film work, agrees he must be in top form to run the aggressive, uptempo offense Del Negro envisions for his first team in Los Angeles.
"Baron isn't in the shape that he needs to be to reach the standard that we've set here, but he knows that," Del Negro said. "He's put in a lot of work in the last month or so, but he started later than maybe needs to. Overall, I'm pleased with it, but he's not where we need to be."
Davis has time to get ready before the Clippers begin the season under new management and direction. Del Negro and Olshey already seemed to command the Clippers' training complex with authority, while the players worked on their group chemistry during several weeks of offseason workouts capped by a trip to Catalina Island on Kaman's boat last weekend.
But Griffin realizes much of the early season spotlight will be on him. The top player in the 2009 draft broke his kneecap while landing after a dunk in a preseason game, eventually undergoing season-ending surgery in January.
"I saw a lot of things while I was on the sideline," Griffin said. "The speed of the game, the way a game develops, the substitution patterns and defensive rotations - I saw everything, and it's going to help me now that I'm on the court."
The Clippers held Griffin out of their summer league games, but he practiced with the summer-league team and impressed the new coaching staff with his vaunted work ethic. If anything, Del Negro and Kaman both said they must make sure Griffin doesn't overdo it in his eagerness to reclaim his lost time.
"You don't understand what it was like for him sitting out," said Kaman, who has been working out in Playa Vista nearly nonstop since July 17. "This guy's work ethic - the only other guy who works like that is Elton Brand. They had to tell (Griffin) to slow it down, or he would have run himself into the ground.
"I've tried to tell him that he doesn't need to worry about all the pressure. I want to take some of that off him, and I think we have a good chance to be one of the best 4-5 combos in the league."
Griffin isn't the only significant addition to the Clippers, who also added first-round picks Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe. They used their ample salary cap room to sign free agents Randy Foye, Ryan Gomes and Brian Cook while re-signing Rasual Butler and Craig Smith - and Olshey says they still have about $5 million in cap room left over to make an additional move if necessary.
Gomes, the hardworking forward who has played in Boston and Minnesota, has been impressed by his new franchise's foundation.
"A lot of the teams that I've been on, we've been regrouping every year," Gomes said. "It doesn't feel like that here, even though it's a new coach, new GM. I think there's a lot of stability. We have a lot of upside on this roster, and this is only the beginning."
The Clippers open their preseason schedule Oct. 5 in Portland, and they'll make a trip to Mexico City before their first exhibition home game on Oct. 14.
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