As a kid, A.J. Griffin had a front-row seat to the start of Jimmy Butler's NBA career. Next year, he'll be playing against him in the NBA.
Griffin was eight years old when the Chicago Bulls drafted Butler with the last pick of the first round in 2011. Griffin's father, Adrian Sr., was a coach on the Bulls' staff at the time and worked with Butler for the next four seasons.
A.J. Griffin watched up close as Butler blossomed into an eventual All-Star, earning his first of six All-Star nods in 2015, Adrian Griffin's last year with Chicago. A.J. kept up with Butler as both his father and eventually Butler moved on to other organizations. As the younger Griffin developed into a promising player in his own right, he took what he learned from Butler and other NBA stars he saw growing up and applied those lessons to his game.
Now 18 years old, Griffin will be drafted in the lottery in next week's draft, perhaps by the Pacers, who own the sixth overall pick. He had an individual workout in Indiana on Monday morning at Ascension St. Vincent Center. When asked by the media afterwards if there were any players he models his game after, the former Duke forward immediately brought up Butler.
"Just knowing his work ethic, what he does just to perform at that level," Griffin said. "That's what I look at - being able to come in every day and work your butt off knowing its going to pay off."
It's not hard to see the similarities between Griffin and Butler, at least from a physical perspective. Although he is one of the youngest players in this year's draft class (he doesn't turn 19 until Aug. 25), Griffin has a grown man's physique. Listed at 6-6 and 222 pounds, Griffin's physical gifts help project him as a potential two-way menace in the mold of Butler or Celtics All-Star Jaylen Brown.
Griffin also displayed a Butler-like work ethic in his lone season at Duke.
His last high school game was in Jan. 2020, as he missed the bulk of his junior and senior seasons due to the combination of injuries and the pandemic. He was then slowed by a preseason knee sprain leading up to the start of the Duke season. As a result, Griffin didn't play big minutes right away for the Blue Devils.
He reached double figures just once in his first eight games, but started to string together some strong performances in December. Coach Mike Krzyzewski moved Griffin into the starting lineup on Jan. 12 at Wake Forest, and the freshman delivered, tallying 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting (3-of-5 from 3-point range).
From there, Griffin took on a larger role, becoming a key piece on Krzyzewski's last team, helping Duke capture the ACC regular-season title and reach the Final Four. Griffin reached double figures in 22 games on the season, with Duke going 20-2 in those contests. He dropped a season-high 27 points in a win at archrival North Carolina on Feb. 5 and finished the year averaging 10.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.
Most impressively - and one area where Griffin distinguished himself from a player like Butler - was his 3-point shooting. He went 71-for-159 from 3-point range at Duke, a .447 3-point percentage. Griffin had 12 games where he knocked down three or more threes, displaying a smooth and consistent stroke even with an unorthdox wide stance.
With the combination of his shooting and his physical tools, Griffin is almost a lock to be taken in the first 10 picks of the draft. He worked out for Portland, who has the seventh overall pick, on Thursday and has a few more workouts scheduled over the coming days.
2022 Draft Workouts: A.J. Griffin
Griffin said his focus in workouts is to showcase his skills beyond shooting, chiefly his ability to create with the ball and his hands and his lock-down defense. More than anything, though, Griffin said he wanted to attack each workout with "intensity."
That's definitely a driving factor that's been instilled in Griffin throughout his life. He saw it firsthand watching Butler, but he also learned it at home, playing one-on-one with his older siblings, brother Alan (who played at Illinois and Syracuse) and sister Aubrey (who played at Connecticut). Griffin recalled how much it would bother him when he lost to his siblings when he was little, saying "that sparked the drive inside me to not have that feeling."
Once he got to Duke, Griffin had the chance to learn from one of the sport's all-time competitors - Krzyzewski.
"His level of competitiveness, I think it rubbed off on everyone," Griffin said. "Especially that last year because it was like you want to do everything you can to win the whole thing. He just taught us so much that year and that's stuff that I'll take with me for the rest of my career."
On paper, Griffin would seemingly fill an area of need for the Pacers. Indiana has had a hole at small forward the past two seasons with T.J. Warren missing all but four games over that span due to injury. Warren is a free agent this summer and a player like Griffin could offer a potential replacement at the position on the same timeline as Indiana's emerging young core, which already includes third-year guard Tyrese Haliburton and 2021 first-round picks Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson.
Griffin said Monday that he believes he "can make an impact right away" as a 3-and-D wing capable of knocking down shots and competing on the defensive end. He believes he would "fit perfectly" alongside a pass-first point guard like Haliburton, who thrives off creating looks for his teammates.
He has a leg up on most other players in his draft class thanks to his dad's experience as both a player and a coach. Adrian Griffin played for nine seasons in the league, spending time with five different teams.
Adrian retired when A.J. was just four years old, but immediately went into coaching. He spent two seasons as an assistant with Milwaukee before joining Tom Thibodeau's staff in Chicago. He was there for Thibodeau's entire five-year tenure, then coached in Orlando and Oklahoma City before joining Nick Nurse's staff in Toronto in 2018, winning a championship ring his first season with the Raptors.
The elder Griffin doesn't have a ton in common with his son as a prospect - Adrian went undrafted out of Seton Hall in 1996 at the age of 21 and didn't reach the NBA until three years later. But he does know a lot about the pre-draft process thanks to his time as a coach, something that A.J. said has given him a leg up on his peers over the past few months.
"He's just saying continue to work," he said of his father's advice. "Know that you're going to have trials and tribulations throughout your career, but you're going to overcome them. And you're going to see the joy of overcoming those obstacles."
There will be many obstacles still to come, but Griffin's hard work is set to pay off next Thursday. He has received an invite to be in the green room at Barclays Center on draft night and admitted that he occasionally lets his mind wander to what it will feel like when Commissioner Adam Silver calls his name.
"I've been counting down the days, yeah," Griffin said. "But I think (I'm) just trying to stay in the present and be able to put all I can into each day. Because the more you focus on the draft, I feel like the longer it takes. I've just been trying to focus on every workout.
"But I know it's coming up soon. I'm definitely excited."