Coach’s Notebook: Blake Griffin – the Redshirt Rookie
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Each week, HOOPSWORLD NBA analyst and coach Anthony Macri will open his notebook and offer an assortment of observations on games, players, and teams from throughout the league. Coach Macri serves as a player development consultant for the Pro Training Center and Coach David Thorpe, working with a variety of NBA players on their skills and game understanding. The Coach’s Notebook appears on HOOPSWORLD every Thursday.
It is remarkable to witness how well Blake Griffin is performing in this, his rookie season in the NBA. While he was undoubtedly gifted and one of the best players in college basketball at Oklahoma as a freshman, very few, if any, expected him to be an All-Star in his first professional season. Certainly, Griffin’s undeniable raw talent and almost freak athleticism have had a role in his unexpected success. His motor also runs hotter than many NBA players, and he has always attacked the rim and the glass with ferocity. However, it was the year he spent on the bench that allowed him to so effectively harness his physical gifts. Impressively, many of the weaknesses he exhibited as a college player are no longer present—and the "redshirt year" he spent in study of the game has had some role in making that happen.
During Griffin’s dominant freshman season at Oklahoma, I wrote a brief player profile on him for BasketballProspectus.com (it can be found here) examining his strengths and weaknesses, and how he projected in the future. Perhaps most illuminating is the final sentence, "If, however, he refines his face-up game, leans out slightly and is able to develop explosion toward the goal, he could break from this mold and be a high-level contributing starter for an NBA playoff team."
In the last year, Griffin has taken it upon himself to develop these facets of his game, and has progressed well beyond what anyone could have expected from him in his first season. Specifically, Griffin has altered his footwork and seems to have a more nuanced feel for the game than he did as a Sooner.
One of the first things one notices in today’s Blake Griffin is the way he operates mostly up on his toes. He is considerably lighter on his feet, particularly in face-the-basket and transition situations. As a collegian, Griffin tended to be more heavy-footed, relying on pure strength and power. However, by leaning out a little bit and spending more time on the balls of his feet, he has increased his explosiveness, becoming quicker and more agile. While he simply overpowered smaller players in college, he now can overpower smaller players and out-quick larger players. This is a huge advantage.
Perhaps as a result of his footwork, Griffin’s most glaring deficiency in college was that he seldom changed speed and direction with the ball in his hands. A proverbial bull in the china shop, he consistently powered at top speed in one direction. However, he has obviously worked on his ability to shift gears on drives, employing a variety of stop-and-start moves, that accentuate his explosive athleticism. His ability to change directions is still in its early stages, though he is using more crossovers and spins in places other than the post. In general, his body control is very good, and he has always displayed a good sense of balance. These strengths have only gotten better in his time off.
Defensively, Griffin’s pairing with Deandre Jordan in the Clippers’ front court has only made him better. He is more active than he was at Oklahoma, shuttling over for help blocks and using his hands and leverage to become a more pesky post defender. He runs the floor on the defensive end much better than he did in college, and in general seems to focus on every possession, which was not something he always did just over a year ago. It’s easy to trace these mental gains to a year spent watching from the bench.
While Griffin’s improvements have put him in a position to be an All-Star in his first season as a professional, he still has plenty of room to grow. In fact, improvements in the following three areas would catapult Blake Griffin into the conversation for best power forward in the league – and a career that could put him in some rarified historical categories as well.
There is little debate that Griffin’s jump shooting mechanics need work. Two specific things, both relatively small adjustments to his shot preparation technique, could pay huge dividends as he looks to expand his game. First, like many players, Griffin tends to catch, then load his hips by bending his knees. He wants to get the ball off quickly, so he never really achieves a deep knee bend. By catching with his knees bent, hips pre-loaded, he could eliminate that ugly hitch in his jumper (it is the major reason many of his shots end up short). Secondly, on the catch, Griffin tends to drop the ball below his waist with his shooting hand moving to the top of the ball. He does this so he can use his arm motion to compensate for the lack of energy transfer from his legs. By pre-loading his hips, he would have the energy necessary to avoid dropping the ball. Consequently, he could keep his hand behind or below the ball, and the ball in his shot pocket, throughout his shooting motion. The ball has less distance to travel from his shooting pocket to its release point, and therefore less room for variation. Less variation means more consistency, and more consistency means more buckets.
Another place where a small adjustment could pay sizable dividends is at the free throw line. Griffin’s early shot mechanics are decent here, as he brings the ball to a rest before finishing the shot (which is something we teach most of our bigs). However, he still has a slight hitch which interrupts the energy transfer as he brings the ball past his forehead. That could be smoothed out. In addition, he tends to fall off the line a little too much. By making his actual shot one fluid motion and freezing the follow-thru, he should easily be able to add 8-9% to his free throw shooting percentage of 61%. That would roughly translate to an additional 0.8 points per game – a significant bump in the long run.
Finally, and this is too large an area to delve into with any significant depth, Griffin’s catch-and-face jab series is nearly non-existent. On most possessions, when Griffin is confronted with the opportunity to go into a face-up situation, Blake immediately either puts the ball on the deck and looks to create off the dribble against a defender, or turns his body and creates a back-to-the-basket opportunity. Whether it is a lack of confidence in his face-up jab series game or because defenders simply don’t respect his jump shot, the jab series is just not something he looks to implement all too often. Focusing on improving this facet of his game should come after grooving his jump shot into a reliable weapon, as that is when teams will start to crowd him more. Like Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett, this will bring a more comprehensive feel to his game. Like the other improvements he has made, there is no doubt this weapon will be part of his arsenal in the near future.
With the significant improvements Blake Griffin has made in his time off between college and the pros, there is no reason to expect he won’t continue to improve at a rapid rate now that he is getting repetitions on the floor. Expectations should be high for him to make a huge leap again between his rookie and sophomore year – that’s pretty scary considering how dominant he looks right now. While there is no way to project how good he could be, having a player who combines the best traits of Karl Malone and Shawn Kemp is not a bad place to start – and his ceiling may be even higher than that.
Have questions for Coach Macri? Be sure and drop by HOOPSWORLD on Mondays at 2PM Eastern for the Coach’s weekly basketball chat! You can also follow Coach Macri on Twitter @CoachMacri.