Blake Griffin still grinding for gold medal opportunity
LAS VEGAS — Blake Griffin knows if things had gone according to plan, his plan, he’d already have a gold medal or two in his trophy case.
He’s a five-time All-Star, a four-time All-NBA performer, the 2011 Kia Rookie of the Year and Slam Dunk Contest champion. He’s been the foundation of a franchise, a top-flight pitchman and a global star who at one time was considered one of the future faces of the entire league.
But he never got his hands on that gold with the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team.
The same injuries that seemed to derail his NBA seasons so frequently with the LA Clippers seemed to do the same with Griffin’s chances of making it to the Olympics or the World Cup of Basketball, where he could finally scratch that medal itch that has him here for the two-day practice with the rest of the stars on the National Team roster.
He’s no longer the young jumping jack who toiled here seven years ago with visions of the London Olympics in his head. He’s 29 now, hardened by the trials and tribulations of the superstar driven but sometimes uncertain existence of an NBA veteran.
The opportunities to play with the U-S-A across his chest thought to be plentiful a few years ago have been replaced by the reality that this process waits for no one, not even a superstar.
“It’s always a privilege to be here,” Griffin said. “I say it all the time, USA Basketball is just a different thing, a different atmosphere and a different type of respect. It’s important, too. And I think guys who have played all the way through will tell you that. I’ve been close a couple of times and barring injury, I probably would have been there. And it’s still something I look forward to accomplishing.”
This is the one place where NBA superstars go to be humbled, the one process that separates the very best of the best from the rest in a given cycle.
There are no guarantees, not even for the biggest stars. And therefore, managing this process forces all involved to recognize where they fit in the current landscape.
Timing is everything. Being healthy and at your very best is crucial. And you have to make sure it’s during a competition summer — the World Cup is in China in the summer of 2019 followed by the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
This current minicamp serves several purposes, the most important being an opportunity for the 35 players on the National Team roster to familiarize themselves even more with Gregg Popovich, the longtime coach of the San Antonio Spurs who is taking over as head coach of the team from Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski.
But for stars like Griffin it serves as a bit of a wake-up call, or better yet a reminder. His international clock is ticking.
And the depth of talent is so great that there are bound to be stars of his ilk who don’t make the cut next summer or the summer after that.
That depth of talent is what makes the U.S. program the world’s best.
“The pool is deep as you might expect,” Popovich said, “but what’s more impressive is people like Blake, people that no matter who they are, whether they are young guys or seasoned guys like him, they want to be here and they want to be a part of this. They understand it’s a loftier goal than our NBA teams. This is above that. And he feels it, obviously, and that’s why he’s here.”
Griffin is also still managing the transition from his spot as one of the Clippers’ franchise cornerstones to his new spot in the same role with the Detroit Pistons.
Last year at this time, Griffin was riding high after re-signing for five-years and $173 million with the only team he’d known since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2009. By January, he was the the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade that sent him to Michigan and the Eastern Conference.
So he’s a part of the shifting landscape that all of the stars here acknowledge as the most jarring part of the past few seasons.
“It’s going to be fun,” Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker said. “It’s going to be crazy. We won’t have to deal with [LeBron James] as often as we used to, which was always a monster, but things have shifted quite a bit the past few years. Guys are moving, things change constantly, and that forces everybody to stay on their toes because you just never know.”
Griffin agreed, both on the player movement aspect and the changes to the game in general.
“I mean, the league looks completely different,” he said “Not only the style but also where guys are now, it’s just completely different. I think it’s cool, man. The thing that’s great about NBA basketball is guys change teams and the power in the league shifts a little bit … it’s just always something exciting going on in basketball.
Perhaps the best part for a veteran like Griffin is the absence of the extra attention.
Kevin Durant drew the monster media crowd after Thursday’s workout, with everyone curious what he had to say about his Twitter beef with Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum (and he had plenty to say).
Paul George’s first encounter with the assembled national media since choosing to stay in Oklahoma City over going home to the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency stirred up the frenzy you might expect.
USA Basketball is different that any other basketball you can play. You ask anybody in here and they’ll tell you the same thing. It’s just different … I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
And DeMar DeRozan drew a throng of his own, just a week after being traded to the Spurs in that blockbuster deal that sent Kawhi Leonard to Toronto. Leonard, by the way, was one of several stars (LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, McCollum, Bradley Beal, DeAndre Jordan, Jimmy Butler and Gordon Hayward were the others) excused from the minicamp for various reasons.
The crowd that might have smothered Griffin years ago was reduced to a sparse but steady flow of folks checking in on the former “Lob City” star. Some seeming surprised to see him, almost as if they’d forgotten he was a part of the program.
Griffin took it all in stride. He’s confident in who and what he is at this stage of his career. He knows where he fits into the bigger picture, both in the league as well as with the star-studded group that makes up the Senior National Team.
It’s the reason he doesn’t take this time for granted, why he doesn’t hold back at all when he’s among the league’s truly elite at this event.
“USA Basketball is different that any other basketball you can play. You ask anybody in here and they’ll tell you the same thing,” Griffin said. “It’s just different, being here with all of these guys. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“It also goes to show the depth of talent in the NBA, just from the United States. There are guys who are at the top of their game who aren’t even here. And you still look at this group and you figure you’ll still be able to win a gold medal. So it’s humbling to come to something like this and see all of these talented players. It keeps you working.”
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