GRIFFIN STILL LAYING A FOUNDATION FOR CLIPPERS
Blake Griffin stood at the free throw line at the far end of the Clippers’ practice gym and grimaced.
The team had just finished nearly two hours of practice during what is widely considered the dog days of the NBA season and Griffin, his bare shoulders and arms drenched with sweat, was in between free throws.
He cradled the basketball on his hip, stared at the rim like it had mistreated him, grimaced again, and took another of what has amounted to thousands of practice foul shots in the last year. The ball ricocheted off the heel of the rim and returned to him. He caught it, violently slammed it to the floor with two hands, composed himself and shot it again.
Superstardom is not anointed by accident.
“Blake’s very hard on himself,” Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said. “He doesn’t need motivation. He’s a very hard worker. He gets frustrated when he’s not playing well or not performing the way he’s capable of and that’s a good thing.”
It’s because of his work ethic that his shooting coach Bob Thate thinks Griffin could become not just a threat from the outside, but a “great” shooter. The kind of scorer, who was the only player in the NBA with 200 or more dunks this season, that would become virtually unguardable.
Griffin’s work ethic is what’s helped him fully recover from a fractured left kneecap that cost him his true rookie season. It’s a driving force, something that borders obsessive. And it’s what makes Griffin, someone who has averaged historically significant all-around numbers through his first 228 games, a once in a generation-type player.
“That’s how I learned,” Griffin said of his mental approach to basketball. “I learned that from my dad and, really, my brother and his work ethic. As a kid watching that some days you’re not always going to feel like you’re on top of your game and as long as you keep working and as long as you keep improving you’re going to be fine.
“And that carries over into a team aspect. Not every day, not every month or week, or whatever it is, you’re going to feel like you’re playing your best. But as long as you stay together and keep everybody on the same page and working for the right thing then good things are going to happen. It’s inevitable.”
The inevitability of Griffin’s ascension from first overall pick to slam dunk sensation to All-Star starter to face of a rising franchise was far from written in stone. But the foundation was laid early on, starting in Edmond, Oklahoma, the suburb north of Oklahoma City named after a former Santa Fe Railroad freight agent where Griffin grew up. The influence of his older brother, Taylor, who is a forward on the Santa Cruz Warriors of the NBA Development League and played with Blake at the University of Oklahoma, has been well-documented.
In January, when the Clippers visited the Warriors, Griffin said, “I learned my work ethic from him (Taylor), watching him as he started developing his game and really putting in the time that’s where I got it from.
“It definitely helps having somebody there to push you. I would constantly lose to him in whatever we were doing, so it just kind of drove that competitive spirit.”
With the Clippers, Griffin’s competitiveness emerged from the moment he debuted Oct. 27, 2010. But the process of refining his game has continued daily. It was something that has stood out to teammates new and old.
“He’s even better than I thought,” said Jamal Crawford, who joined the Clippers in the summer of 2012 but played against Griffin for the previous two seasons. “You see the highlights and all the wonderful things he does, but then seeing him up close, seeing him be one of the first guys at practice and last guys to leave every single day, seeing him work on his shot, how unselfish he is passing the ball. I think those are all things that you don’t see from afar. And I have special appreciation for him.”
Asked if the 24-year-old Griffin has approached his ceiling yet, Caron Butler, Griffin’s teammate for two seasons said, “His potential is... Blake’s what? 24? Come on. He’s not even in the prime of his career yet. He’s just scratching the surface on what he can be. Obviously, he’s a special talent and has unbelievable God-given ability. I never jumped over a car or anything so I can speak first hand in saying that that’s a gift.
“Blake’s developing on the fly. He’s learning,” Butler added. “Let’s not get it twisted. He’s a superstar already. It’s going to be scary for the league for years to come: his potential.”
The funny thing, though, about words like potential are that they come with a different set of responsibilities. Griffin’s first two seasons in the NBA were with a team bound for the lottery. Fast forward to 2013, with only two other players still on the roster from Griffin’s rookie year (DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe) the Clippers are bound for their second-straight playoff berth for only the second time in franchise history.
“It’s a big responsibility,” Chris Paul said. “Blake is one of those guys who has been thrust into a different situation. Bringing all these new guys in here last year and as you get older you realize there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with being on a really good team.”
Paul, who is in his eighth season, dealt with a similar situation during his six-year stint in New Orleans: “I definitely had to learn it real quickly. I went from two years of not making the playoffs to my third year being 56-26. So, you’re learning pretty quickly.”
According to Del Negro, the best way for Griffin to learn quickly is through experience. That showed on Apr. 13 when Griffin read a play on the defensive end to help seal a crucial late-season victory over the Memphis Grizzlies at FedEx Forum. With the Clippers ahead by two and 12 seconds remaining, Griffin saw a pin-down screen for Mike Conley coming from Zach Randolph, the man Griffin was guarding. He knew what was coming next, an entry pass to the All-Star forward and former Clipper. Griffin jumped the play, knocked the ball away to a waiting Matt Barnes and released up the floor.
While Griffin downplayed it after the game, it was the type of read and react play on defense that he was not making as often in his first two seasons. And another example of how his all-around game has improved in year three, despite claims from afar that “all he does is dunk.”
“He’s got to go through it with the experience, with the workouts, just maturing in terms of his game, understanding things, time and score, when to attack, but he understands it,” Del Negro said in regards to Griffin’s development. “He’s hard on himself and that pushes him and sometimes he can get frustrated.”
For Griffin, being hard himself is somewhat part of the process to becoming a leader on a great team, part of that responsibility that Paul alluded to.
“We talked about it my first year that I actually played, about laying a foundation,” Griffin said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. Very few teams come together with a new coach and a very young team, come together and win their first year. I remember when I was at Oklahoma my sophomore year and [the] Oklahoma City [Thunder] had just moved there and they were 2-23 at one point. And that’s completely forgotten, nobody talks about those days. It’s a process and you just have to keep moving in the right direction.”