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The Highs and Lows of AJ Griffin
AJ Griffin has been hampered by injuries and wasn't handed the keys to the offense at Duke, but he's a phenomenal scoring prospect with a powerful frame. Where will his journey go next?
Throughout his high school career, a palpable buzz surrounded AJ Griffin. The son of former NBA player and current NBA assistance coach Adrian Griffin, AJ Griffin was more than just a “legacy admit” to recruiting ranking lists; he was a prolific scorer who racked up titles in the Catholic High School Athletic Association. Injuries to his knee and ankle inhibited his momentum, but he still received a five-star rating from 247Sports and Rivals. After missing his senior season of high school ball, draftniks were champing at the bit to see Griffin return to action for a star-studded Duke team. To the frustration of his biggest fans, Duke didn’t let Griffin storm the barn; instead, they launched him with a “soft opening,” easing him into the rotation as the season progressed. Despite a slower start, Griffin solidified his stock as a lottery-level prospect by the end of the season. He was given more opportunities and appeared to grow more confident, giving evaluators reason for optimism. The skeptics will point to his decreased mobility, injury concerns, and inconsistent defense, but fans of Griffin can point to his past performances and historic scoring profile for a player his age. There have been highs and lows to AJ Griffin’s journey, but he will undoubtedly hear his name called on draft night. Today, we’ll take a look at what the team selecting him can expect out of the gate, and what they can hope to see down the road.
AREAS OF STRENGTH
Alex: The first thing people typically bring up when discussing AJ Griffin is the shooting, and for good reason. Boasting a 44.7% 3P% as an 18-year-old freshman in the ACC is no small feat. This also didn’t come on a small sample size as Griffin took 4.1 3PA per game and had a 0.537 3pAr (3-Point Attempt Rate), per Sports Reference. There is no doubt that Griffin’s primary contribution to an NBA team early on will be his ability to space out the floor by knocking down shots. While a majority of AJ Griffin’s looks came off spot-up opportunities, he also showed a variation of his shot that should also help his game translate nicely to the next level. If you look across his Synergy profile, the shooting rankings are some of the more impressive numbers you will ever see from a prospect. Griffin ranked in the 91st percentile on spot-ups, the 98th percentile off screens, the 97th percentile on all halfcourt jumpers, the 95th Percentile on catch-and-shoot, and the 95th Percentile off the dribble—just an insane shooting profile, especially from the wing position. I have put together a mini-mix of AJ Griffin shot attempts below so you can get a true sense of his ability. Even his spot-up opportunities are impressive as he has a knack for finding the open space and getting himself open off-ball. There’s examples of all the above scenarios and he was vital to that Duke offense with providing adequate spacing around guys like Paolo Banchero.
Obviously you can see from the above that he has a very wide base on his jumper. It’s probably the biggest critique people bring up when discussing how it will translate to the NBA. It would probably benefit Griffin if he slightly tweaked that to ease his ability to get into his shot quicker at the next level, especially off the dribble. I wouldn’t change anything too drastically because obviously it’s worked for him, but minor adjustments could go a long way. One other area that you’d like to see AJ Griffin expand his game to is the mid-range. He rarely took them during his one season at Duke, so adding that level to his scoring would pair nicely with his obvious shooting from deep and his ability to get to the rim, which we will dive into next.
Maxwell: Driving is an aspect of AJ Griffin’s game that is both a strong suit and a place where he can grow. His prolific shot-making, baby soft touch, and powerful frame all make him a viable driver. Because he’s so strong and sturdy, he’s difficult to wall off or grind to a halt once he’s downhill. Even if you do stop him short of his targeted destination, he boasts a gorgeous floater game, finishing in the 79th percentile among eligible players on runners per Synergy. His handle isn’t the sauciest, but it’s respectable, and Griffin has a solid understanding of his opponent’s momentum. He identifies when opponents are off-balance and barrels toward the basket in the correct direction when the opportunity arises. When he does get to the rim, it’s curtains-- he made 64.9% of his shots around the basket in the halfcourt per Synergy, an outstanding number for a non-big. Griffin also does a solid job of keeping his head up on drives. His experience as a primary scoring option at the grassroots level shines through, as he’s comfortable kicking it to the open man when help defense comes his way. He won’t make shocking passing reads that leave your jaw on the floor, but he’s a trustworthy player who can make good decisions when swarmed.
There are some easy leaps to be made here, too. His handle could be tighter, which is true of many players his age and nothing to panic about. My biggest issues are his lack of vertical explosiveness and his choppy footwork. The leaping is partially remedied by his supreme touch, but as he scales up to the NBA, he’ll have to launch his rim efforts over bigger, smart, bouncier players. His footwork is my primary concern. Griffin’s first step is suboptimal, and he takes several small steps rather than big, long strides. As a result, he’s slower to get to his spots than he should be, which makes his life more difficult. His shooting gravity is going to draw hot closeouts that he should be able to exploit, but currently, he’s not able to maximize these scoring chances. There’s a tentativeness permeating his game here that I’d like to see him shed as he regains confidence in his body after a series of injuries in high school. Taking bigger strides to the cup and working on leaping quickly off of one and two feet would do wonders to round out this part of his game.
Alex: An area that AJ Griffin will need to improve on will be his passing and playmaking for others. While APG isn’t the best barometer, he only averaged 1.0 APG to go along with just a 7% AST%, per Sports Reference. These are obviously low numbers and will need to increase at the next level if he’s going to maximize his value. I think the main part Griffin needs to focus on is consistency. There were times where he showed real ability to attack closeouts and make the extra pass, but becoming more consistent with the passing reads will be beneficial to him adding more value as an off-ball threat in the NBA. Given his shooting ability, defenders will close out hard on him which will open up plenty of driving opportunities. Griffin will need to get better and be faster at decision-making in these situations when choosing between taking it all the way to the rim or dropping it off to an open teammate as defenses rotate. From time to time, Griffin would overdrive and end up turning the ball over because he either runs out of real estate, or tries to pass it off too late.
In the above clip, Griffin does a great job getting downhill after the catch. His drive forces Jaylin Williams to rotate over but Griffin doesn’t have his head up; by the time he does see Mark Williams, it’s too late, and the pass is deflected. Ultimately AJ Griffin did make the correct passing decision, he was just a second too late on the read which allowed the steal.
Overall I actually think Griffin is a decent passer though. The improvement he needs to make is more so processing speed which might come as his reps increase. He wasn’t really asked to be a playmaker at Duke, so the opportunities were few and far between. You can see in the below compilation that AJ Griffin has the ability to be a dangerous passer, especially out of driving scenarios, he just needs added reps and consistently needs to pick out more of these passes.
When you see people who have reservations about AJ Griffin, it almost always comes back to his defense. Let’s start with the positives, though. Strength has long been an underrated element of defense, and Griffin has plenty of it. When players run into him, they can’t get anywhere. He’s going to be impervious to physical bullying. Additionally, his 7’ wingspan makes life tough for opposing players when they try to put up shots over him. As a result, if you meet Griffin around the basket, you’re not going to get great results. He graded out in the 73rd percentile per Synergy guarding shots around the basket and posted a 2.3 BLK %. When he manages to stay more upright, he’s flashed the ability to get skinny around screens, which is tantalizing for a player with his frame.
Griffin struggles in space, though. First off, he’s not quick to react, especially when he’s operating at a standstill. Players with a good first step or who can make him dance give him problems, as he can’t respond urgently or provide a meaningful answer to counters. Another issue is that, like with his jumper, he plays with deep bend. Getting low in a defensive stance isn’t a bad thing, but with Griffin’s extreme stance, it makes him even slower. When he needs to burst upright to recover or get around a screen, it takes him a moment too long to do so. Lastly, his feet are heavy and the choppy footwork that diminishes his impact as a driver rears its head on this side of the ball as well. Off the ball, he’s unable to spring into help position in a timely manner, and his long load time as a leaper limits him as a weakside rim protector. At the point of attack, Griffin is often unable to get back into plays once he’s beat. If he can’t regain the fluidity that he showed in his high school film, there are real questions about who he is able to guard and how it could diminish his ceiling.
We anticipate AJ Griffin to hear his name called somewhere within the 5 to 11 range on draft night. His scoring is one of the strongest safety nets we’ve seen. Size and shooting are covered in the modern NBA, and Griffin unquestionably offers both. His floor as a rotation player feels safe, given that he’ll be able to knock down open shots and exploit bullying opportunities for easy buckets. How he manages to develop as a playmaker, bounce back from his past injuries, and improve his defensive effort will ultimately determine the heights to which he is able to climb. Should he regain his bounce and mobility, he could have All-Star potential.