After every NBA Draft, there is always a few players who either are more productive than they were in college or are used in a drastically different fashion. There are a few reasons why this occurs. Mainly, it’s that these players get better. Another is the situation they find themselves in. When teams put together stacked recruiting classes, all of the top-notch recruits need to play, and sometimes that means taking a step back from being the number one option they’ve been accustomed to during their high school and AAU days. Not every college coach has caught up to the three-point craze of today’s NBA, so many prospects are left to drive into brick walls 24-7.
The former applies to one player in particular: Duke’s AJ Griffin. Griffin was one of three top-30 recruits to commit to the Blue Devils in 2021, along with potential number one overall pick Paolo Banchero and potential first-round pick Trevor Keels. They joined former top 100 recruits and holdovers from the previous year’s class in Jeremy Roach (19th) and Mark Williams (32nd), and Wendell Moore Jr. from the 2019 class. With a guard-laden group and a stud point-forward, all of whom would prefer to have the ball in their hands, someone from this group had to sacrifice for the betterment of the team.
A lot of that sacrifice came by way of Griffin, most notably in the form of usage rate. Usage rate is defined as an estimate of the percentage of plays used by a player while he was on the floor. AJ Griffin’s sat at 18.8-percent, which ranked fourth on his own team. Fortunately, he has the skillset to play off-ball. Griffin averaged just under seven three-point attempts per-40 minutes and scorched nets to the tune of 44.7-percent on those attempts. He also shot 79.2-percent from the free-throw line, often times a better indicator of shooting ability when parsing college prospects. Griffin has no problem shooting on the move or relocating to open areas to let it fly.
DUKE. IS. FEELING IT❗️
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 27, 2022
Yeah, Griffin can really stroke it in any which way. Stats gathered by @abovethebreak3 on Twitter and his breakdown of AJ Griffin breakdown of Griffin bare it out. Griffin ranked inside of the 88th-percentile in all of these shooting categories: halfcourt possessions (99th-percentile), all offensive possessions (98th-percentile), all jumpers (97th-percentile), all three-point attempts (96th-percentile), catch-and-shoot jumpers (95th-percentile), unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers (93rd-percentile), contested catch-and-shoot jumpers (89th-percentile), off-the-dribble jumpers (95th-percentile), and around the basket attempts (88th-percentile). Good God!
AJ Griffin is a savvy cutter too. Once he sees his man’s attention away from him he zips to the basket.
I don't know what was better, Wendell Moore's pass or AJ Griffin's backdoor cut/dunk. pic.twitter.com/3bVNg6TCN5
— Poliseli (@BBall_Poliseli) December 31, 2021
AJ Griffin is already capable of playing alongside another ace creator, but there is already a lot to work with for him in that area as well. Again, Griffin had just an 18.8-percent usage rate in his one season at Durham. For comparison’s sake, that was the same usage rate Thomas Bryant had in the NBA, and just below the likes of Talen Horton-Tucker, Jeremy Lamb, and Malik Beasley. With all due respect to those guys, none of them are in Griffin’s class talent-wise, especially when Griffin can do stuff like this:
Have had this AJ Griffin bucket replaying over and over in my head since it happened last night pic.twitter.com/iLjbTDd065
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) March 25, 2022
Sheesh. AJ Griffin really likes using that hang dribble to freeze his defender and then pounce right after. Griffin can really stroke it from any which way possible, and that includes shooting it off the bounce. According to data gathered by Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman, Griffin generated roughly 1.1 points per possession on pull-up jumpers in the halfcourt. Only three other players in his dataset averaged at least that many: Missouri State’s Isiaih Mosley, Gonzaga’s Andrew Nembhard, and Oral Roberts’ Max Abmas. Not too shabby, huh? Griffin isn’t jacking from deep either. Though he is more than capable, he’s flashed three-level scoring capability with the ball in his hands. Go under a pick and roll screen and you’re risking instant death if you can’t meet Griffin on the other side:
Even if you meet him and take away the pull-up three, AJ Griffin’s savvy, handle, and the threat from his jumper lets him get and fire anywhere he wants. Duke liked to set Griffin up in the form of give-and-go’s to buy him an advantage. They did so here.
Brady Manek meets AJ Griffin despite going under the initial screen. But, Griffin used a pump fake to get Manek to bite as he tried and succeeded in running Griffin off the three-point line. Griffin simply takes what’s given to him and rises up for the elbow jumper.
AJ Griffin is plenty adept at stepping into jumpers on the move, but he isn’t limited to that either. The stepback three is a signature move in today’s NBA, and one Griffin has no qualm with setting up either. His explosive base and polished handle and footwork allow for him to empty that tool from his extensive bag and unleash it as well.
AJ Griffin goes back to that hang dribble to freeze his man (Brady Manek). But with Manek’s mind occupied with Griffin beating him off the bounce, Griffin takes the space given to him & simply sides back beyond the three-point line to give himself more room to fire. There aren’t many out there who are not only as versatile as Griffin in creating their own shot but do so with Griffin’s efficiency.
AJ Griffin is also great at leveraging these skills to get to the rim. Duke ran a similar give and go, but this time Griffin elected to cook a little against Manek. After Manek met him at the three-point line again, Griffin freezes him with a stepback, uses a crossover to get by him, and uses his bulky 6-6 222-pound frame to drive through him, absorb any contact and use a soft touch to finish at the rim.
AJ Griffin oozes three-level scoring upside in the NBA. Those are hard to find at any position, but especially at the wing, the most important position in the NBA. Griffin not only shot 44.7-percent from three but also 54.7-percent on twos, a very healthy number. It’s even harder to find three-level wing scorers who get after it defensively. Griffin does that. With his size, he should be able to switch 1-4 the instant he gets in the league. If you need Griffin to bang with a bigger defender, Griffin can do it.
But AJ Griffin needs to be more consistent on that end. The framework of a versatile, stout defender is there in addition to his scoring prowess, but the commitment to that end teeters up and down for Griffin. There are times when he looks like an agile brick wall defensively…
… and times when he can upsize to bang and stunt bigger players trying to score against him…
… and other times when he gets caught lacking.
The same applies to AJ Griffin’s off-ball defense too. When Griffin is active and alert, he can use his size and athleticism to put out fires away from his man. Here, for example, Mark Williams hedges high at the top of the key. Meanwhile, Armando Bacot slips to the rim with no one there. That is until Griffin rotates from the weak side and not only rips Bacot but forces the turnover along the way.
AJ Griffin could stand to improve his consistency defensively, but this was a really good & alert play to not only rotate early to take away Bacot’s role but strip him & force a turnover in the process. pic.twitter.com/KIUwcecrEa
— Shervon Fakhimi (@ShervonFakhimi) May 14, 2022
But, as I said earlier, Griffin’s consistency has work to do.
Navigating a labyrinth of screens is an issue for AJ Griffin at the moment too. He can get caught on screens and concede open looks for guards looking to escape his wrath.
It’s important that AJ Griffin lands in a spot that will hold him accountable defensively. In my opinion, I think Griffin has the capability to be an All-NBA caliber defender. The size and tools are clearly there. Sure, there are some techniques he could improve as well, but I view consistency and commitment as the primary issue. That can absolutely improve, but he needs to get to a team that values that and winning as well. Andrew Wiggins is a great example. He never was a great defender in Minnesota toiling in losing perpetuity, but he’s embraced becoming a stopper in Golden State and his defensive prowess helped the Warriors take down the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 6 to get back to the Western Conference Finals.
AJ Griffin also could improve as a playmaker. Though Griffin wasn’t asked to create offense often, he only averaged 1.6 assists per-40 minutes. He frequently left opportunities on the table too, even ones that don’t directly lead to an open shot. Griffin doesn’t jack shots, but he also derails plenty of possessions by dribbling nowhere trying to beat him off the dribble before giving the ball up. If Griffin doesn’t improve as a playmaker, he may settle in as more of a secondary ballhandler like Jaylen Brown or Paul George than an alpha primary guy like Jayson Tatum or Jimmy Butler. There is no shame in that; Brown and George are great players too! But if Griffin wants to eclipse his seemingly never-ending ceiling, that’s one way he could.
Perhaps the most glaring reason why AJ Griffin is not regarded in the same tier as the likes of Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith, and Paolo Banchero is his medicals. In January 2020 before he stepped foot on Duke’s campus and the whole world lit on fire, Griffin dislocated his left knee during what turned out to be his last high school game. Before the 2021-22 college basketball season, Griffin sprained his right knee. Griffin did not miss any of Duke’s 39 games, but was a factor in him coming off the bench for parts of the season (Griffin started 25 of Duke’s 39 games) and not getting as hefty a workload (in addition to Griffin’s 18.8-percent usage rate, he only averaged 24 minutes per game and played 935 minutes total) as his fellow draftmates.
For that, AJ Griffin inherently carries an extra dose of risk that NBA teams may be unwilling to take, especially when Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith, Paolo Banchero, and Jaden Ivey are there for the taking. But once we get past those four, the next two prospects up for many (including me) are arguably the two biggest wild cards in the entire draft: Griffin and Kentucky’s Shaedon Sharpe. Sharpe did not play college basketball in the 2021-22 season, but Griffin did. And when he did, he flashed the capability of being the next great two-way, three-level scoring wing. If teams come away encouraged by Griffin’s medicals, he should end up in the top five of this year’s draft, where I believe he belongs. But I think Griffin has a chance to be better than that and emerge as the best player in this class when we look back at it years from now. Yes, ahead of Holmgren Smith, Banchero, and anybody else in this class. But he needs the right situation to learn and improve his game. He’ll be able to showcase more in the NBA than we got to see from him in Duke, that’s for sure. I’m excited to find out how much more that will turn out to be.