AJ Griffin Is Starting To Cook
AJ Griffin entered the 21-22 season as a potential top 5 pick. After a mysteriously shaky start, the 5 star Duke freshman has finally found his footing.
Once thought of as the Robin to Paolo Banchero’s Batman, AJ Griffin was beginning to feel like an afterthought down in Durham. A preseason knee injury that Griffin suffered in an early October practice, forced Griffin to come out of the gate a little less impactful than scouts had anticipated. While the Blue Devils were rolling, Griffin seemed to be playing catch up.
Griffin entered the season as a potential top 5 pick on the Draftdaq IPO, but after averaging a little over ten minutes a game through Duke’s first eight contests, the 6’6” 220 pound wing’s draft stock was in a free fall. But something has clicked during Duke’s latest six game stretch. A stretch in which Griffin’s playing time has doubled and the 5 star wing has looked every bit the pro prospect he was hyped to be coming into his freshman season.
NBA teams search high and wide for wings with his body and skillset. If you bought in on Griffin early you’re gonna need diamond hands throughout the process.
It’s easy to understand why Griffin was initially lost in the shuffle. The Blue Devils are loaded with guys who thrive with the ball in their hands and thrusting Griffin into a high usage role while he works his way back from injury could have caused some systemic issues. You know the saying about having too many cooks in the kitchen. Griffin’s willingness to buy into and thrive playing off the ball is a major reason as to why he’s worked his way into a consistent role off the bench heading into conference play.
When you’re a young player looking to earn minutes, it’s all about doing the little things. Griffin’s activity as a cutter has paid dividends for the Blue Devils. The feel for timing cuts and taking advantage of his man when they overhelp (keep that head on a swivel y’all) has led to easy offense for the freshman. It’s all too easy to get bored and float waiting for kickouts, but active cutting puts pressure on the defense, keeping it honest and forcing teams to play you straight up. If a team doubles off of Griffin, he’s exploding to the hoop where his hangtime and touch has allowed him to finish 82.4% of his close twos this season per barttorvik.
NBA basketball is about quick decisive decisions when the ball swings your way. Griffin doesn’t do much catch and hold. When the pass comes his way, he uses his explosive first step to blow by his man and get to his spots. That hangtime after absorbing the contact and drawing the foul is very Jimmy Butler-esque b-t-dubs.
Griffin won’t enter the NBA with the reputation of being a plus shooter, but he’s far exceeded expectations early on, connecting on 44.4% of his three point attempts. While Griffin is capable of creating his own shot off the bounce, the majority of his outside shots have been in catch and shoot situations within the flow of the offense. The form isn’t perfect (I would love to see a slightly more narrow base, feet shoulder width apart) and the volume is still too low to make any definitive conclusions about, but you can’t argue the results thus far. Griffin proving that he can space the floor for an NBA offense will eliminate many of the potential fit questions that more ball dominant non-shooters may have.
As Griffin’s minutes have increased, so too has his confidence creating shots in isolation. Griffin does an excellent job of playing with pace and has the shake and wiggle to generate enough space to get clean looks at the hoop. When he’s working the midrange Griffin has shown off a dazzling display of footwork, hitting tough turnarounds and smooth step backs.
Griffin has those same moves from distance as well. He isn’t taking them at volume yet, but he’s shown the flashes that have carried over from his time at Stepinac. Even on misses, you can see that Griffin is undeterred by the defender and can get the shot off cleanly.
The intrigue with Griffin doesn’t stop with his offense. An NBA front office that is taking Griffin with a top ten pick will expect a two way player that can guard multiple positions.
Griffin hasn’t been perfect on the defensive side of the ball but he’s shown the flashes of being an impact defender. Griffin is at his best when he can react to what’s happening in front of him and use his athletic tools to overwhelm his opponent. Griffin glides on the court and can stick with any player that you assign him out on the perimeter. In Duke’s recent game against Miami, Griffin got left out on an island with a red hot Isaiah Wong. With Griffin deep in his stance, arms wide, Wong never stood a chance. Wong tries to cross Griffin into oblivion only to get stripped by Griffin’s quick hands. Kameron McGusty recovered the poke away and then tries to take Griffin off the bounce only to be funneled by Griffin into a Keels/Williams sandwich.
Even coming off of the knee injury you can see how quick and twitchy Griffin is. This time Griffin goes wing to wing in transition to pick up the ball, he stops on a dime and changes directions, and then meets Davion Mintz at the nail getting a good contest on the fallaway. Just a quick decisive moment that shows off his ability to react and make defensive plays.
Griffin’s agility allows him to stay with quick shifty guards, but he also has the strength to check bigs that try to overpower him. In the clip below, the 6’9” Aluma from Virginia Tech tries to back Griffin down to no avail. Griffin just walls up, holds his ground, and forces him into a tough contested jump hook from twelve feet out.
Where Griffin needs some work is on the nuance of off ball defense. Too often Griffin is in straight up deny. Even when he’s on the weakside of the floor away from the action he tends to hug his man instead of cheating the paint ready to help. Griffin should be splitting the difference between the wing and corner in the clip below, but he’s face guarding his man. As the guard penetrates and kicks out to the corner, Griffin chases his man moving away from the action, never actually seeing the ball on its way to the hoop. The good news is that he’s engaged, he’s just not always in the right spots to help.
Griffin’s draft stock has been a rollercoaster ride this season but he’s finally trending in the right direction. The sample size is still small and some of the percentages may not be sustainable, but Griffin isn’t really doing anything that he wasn't projected to be able to do this season. It took a little while to get here, but AJ Griffin is starting to heat up. If you had diamond hands, you’re patience is being rewarded.