Blake Griffin’s Limitless Ceiling on Full Display During Breakout Season

LOS ANGELES – Now that we’re starting to realize how wrong we were to think this guy is just some gimmick who jumped over the hood of a car in a dunk contest, let’s brace ourselves for two next-step concepts we need to ponder:

Right now, is Blake Griffin the best player on the Los Angeles Clippers, not Chris Paul?

And someday, will Blake Griffin be the best player in the NBA, not LeBron James or Kevin Durant?

It’s logically still difficult to get behind either of those ideas, but Griffin has improved so much that they are radical but not irrational theories. We’d be fools not to buy into what could be for Griffin, because the reasons he has risen from stardom to greatness are the same reasons no one should rule out another leap to legend.

He wants it…and he works for it.

It’s just so hard for people to get over first impressions, even when they’re wrong.

“He’s better than I realized,” first-year Clipper J.J. Redick said. “And one thing that is mind-blowing to me is how hard he works. I don’t think he gets enough credit for that. He works on his game daily, and it shows.”

Ever since the 2011 NBA lockout, Robbie Davis has been there for that work.

“The thing that really stands out to me, other than his sheer will and desire to be great, is his attention to detail,” said Davis, who has trained other top pros such as Kevin Love, James Harden and Chris Bosh. “He doesn’t let anything slide.”

“He has an incredible understanding of his body now. He’s educated himself on how to train properly, eat properly and recover properly. He’s more knowledgeable than any other athlete I’ve had.”

Davis’ role represents the extra effort this obvious physical marvel in size and skill is doing with his proverbial strength: Davis and Griffin killed it in the offseason and even now go through in-season morning workouts five times a week before Griffin’s usual Clippers regimen, a testament to his dedication.

But what about Griffin’s weakness? Clippers shooting coach Bob Thate handles that end of the spectrum. And the thing is, Davis and Thate alike have told people they’re awed by Griffin’s drive to improve.

Thate believes the pieces are in place for Griffin, who used to work hard but not smart with a technically sound stroke, to blossom into one of the best shooters in the game. Thate was unavailable for comment because of Doc Rivers’ policy against his Clippers assistant coaches conducting interviews, but consider what Thate told the Orange County Register in April during the last days of the uninspired Vinny Del Negro era about Griffin’s future:

“When he becomes a face-up guy and takes the shot that’s there, he’ll be incredible. When you look at Blake and LeBron James, they’re equal in physical gifts. In time they’ll be the best two players in the league every year.”

When Thate joined the Clippers before last season, he told Griffin that of 20 different moving parts in his shot, 18 were wrong. (All that Griffin did correctly was hold the ball and keep his right elbow in place.) Given the scope of the project, Thate’s coaching didn’t transform Griffin overnight, which was a challenge for Griffin to accept considering he put in so much work last season and his timeline for achieving greatness is yesterday.

This season, though, Griffin has only a few problem areas left in his stroke—and just as importantly, Rivers has encouraged him to embrace that face-up, one-dribble game and operate more like a small forward. Griffin has been able to maximize his quickness in blowing by bigs but slides into the post when he has a small matchup to devour. He doesn’t have the long arms to create a clean shot every time in the post, but rest assured he is plenty productive in there.

Griffin’s basic numbers (23.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists per game) aren’t radically different from the monster impact he delivered as the unanimous 2010-11 NBA Rookie of the Year, but he’s a dramatically more versatile player. This season, per, Griffin is shooting 41 percent on shots from 16-24 feet—and he has attempted 235 such shots before the All-Star break compared to 210 in his entire rookie season (when he made 33 percent).

He’s making 70 percent of his free throws, and Griffin’s defensive effort has reached a new level in Rivers’ system that requires more distance covered and physicality delivered. Griffin has even felt confident enough to showcase never-before-seen ball-handling prowess during Paul’s recent 18-game injury absence, including getting to take and create late-game shots as the Clippers went 12-6.

It’s not complicated. Immense talent plus relentless work equals pretty great results.

So as Griffin, 24, heads toward his fourth All-Star Game in four tries this weekend, there are fewer and fewer of the clueless masses who still think he’s nothing but a naturally blessed dunker who makes commercials.

It’s up to you whether you want to get ahead of the curve and open your eyes to the real possibilities here and recognize that Griffin is not just another Clipper upstart peaking early or just another guy long on entitlement and satisfied with stardom.

The leaping ability and hang time in a 6-10 package are unique and incomprehensible. The key is the power Griffin generates through his hips. And if he was indeed only what we thought he was, he’d be all about flexing and growing those ridiculous show muscles.

Instead, Griffin spends no time whatsoever on it.

All the training hours he has put in during this season have been dedicated to boring but fundamental stuff such as vision training, balance drills and injury prevention.

“We don’t work on the explosive part of his game until the offseason,” Davis said.

There are just too many myth-busters to ignore. Teammate Jamal Crawford told reporters a few days ago that Griffin is flat-out “our hardest worker.” Before that, Darren Collison raved about Griffin’s defensive effort as “amazing,” passing along this statement: “Blake, believe it or not, has been our most unselfish player.”

And Rivers, being keen about these kinds of things, identified it long ago.

This was Rivers way back at the start of training camp with the sort of quote that doesn’t get noticed much until the results begin to take such shape at the All-Star break—and can’t fully sink in as a Kobe Bryant-like hard-driving narrative until a certain validation arrives in June:

“I knew he was a worker, but I didn’t know he was a worker to the extent that he’s worked this summer,” Rivers said about Griffin. “He’s put in a lot of time. I’ve been impressed with his scheduling. He does a lot of stuff, and nothing gets in the way of his basketball.”

“That shows me a great sign of maturity for a young player that is pulled in a lot of directions. Usually they’ll say, ‘I can’t come work out today, Coach, because I have this.’ He says to this: ‘You’ve got to wait until I’m finished working out.’ ”

That’s who Griffin really is, no matter how easy the dunks look. In fact, what Griffin really says to his coaches and trainers would never work as some catchphrase, or even as trash talk on the court:

“You’re the one who has to stop me,” he’ll tell them.

Unless he’s told to wrap it up for his own good, Griffin just keeps going and working and trying.

The guy has incredible drive.

And it’d be nice if the funny people at Kia can work that serious message into his next car commercial.

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Damian Lillard: Early Success a Sign of Limitless Potential for Blazers Rookie

Damian Lillard had a four-year standout career at Weber State, including a senior season where averaged 24.4 points per game and became fifth all-time leading scorer in Big Sky conference history. 

His collegiate success paid off last Summer when the Portland Trail Blazers made him the sixth-overall pick of the 2012 NBA draft and signed to a two-year contract worth more than $6.2 million (according to Spotrac). 

Portland is quickly getting its money’s worth only nine games into Lillard‘s young career. 

In his debut, Lillard scored 23 points and provided 11 assists and continued his success by scoring at least 20 points in his next two starts. It has been more than a solid start to his career, but a somewhat historic one (according to the Trail Blazers via Twitter). 

In his latest headline-worthy performance, he led the Blazers to an overtime victory over the Houston Rockets by nailing a three-point shot to tie the game with just over three minutes remaining in overtime. 

Lillard finished with a career-high 27 points as the Blazers escaped with a 119-117 victory over Houston. It’s the Blazers’ second-consecutive win and the their first win streak of the season.


Damian Lillard and the Season Outlook

Damian Lillard is now averaging 19.3 points and 6.4 assists per game, making him a dangerous weapon nine games into his career. 

Portland is sitting with a modest 4-5 record at the moment and has the misfortune of being in the same division at Oklahoma City, but the future is clearly bright if Lillard continues his development.

Lillard is the highest scoring rookie at the moment, beating out the second-place Dion Waiters (14.5) by a sizable 4.8 points per game. 

As a result, it’s easy to jump the gun and get swept away in premature Rookie of the Year talk, but with over 70 games still remaining on the schedule, there will be challenges in the future. 

Lillard is fresh and new. Sometimes a player benefits from not having a history in the league. Once opponents begin to observe Lillard and grow accustomed to his form and habits, we’ll see how he responds and get a better reading on his true capabilities. 

But for now, Lillard is giving Portland fans a lot to be excited about. 


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Age Limitless: Should the NBA Kill College Basketball?

What if the NBA offered the top 100 high school prospects money, every year? What if owners pooled their resources, distributed a scaled amount of say, $25 million (less than what Kobe makes) among these recruits to ensure their arrival in the league?

These athletes could enter the draft, play in the D-League, or simply take the cash. But what they couldn’t do, per NCAA rules, is play college basketball. And that should be an appealing idea for the NBA. 

Summer is the time for analyzing NBA draft prospects, many of whom have been waiting to join the league for a year at least. Summer is the time for analyzing college basketball recruits, many of whom have just joined wildly excited NCAA teams, in a process that can perhaps be described as a much celebrated form of forced waiting. 

The age limit may not be the reason for the prospecting season, but it certainly impacts its weather like an annual El Nino. There is more hype for a prospect like Shabazz Muhammad or Nerlens Noel (prodigies who will probably only play one obligatory year) than for someone who feels grateful for four years on scholarship.

It is as though everyone subconsciously grasps that UCLA and Kentucky are getting away with something incredible, something other than an NCAA rule violation: These schools have procured the free services of a famous mega-talent who prefers to be elsewhere.

It isn’t just these programs who revel in free labor of the most wondrous kind; it’s the entire college basketball structure. NCAA president Mark Emmert is so addicted to the NBA’s largesse that he’s tacitly begging David Stern to further raise the age limit. 

The conventional view is that this age limit is good for pro basketball because it allows the league a “free farm system.” I hardly see how the system is free.

To my eyes, it looks like NBA owners are putting money in the pockets of college athletic directors, and for what in return? So that Casual NBA Fan can knows who Kemba Walker is? So that the NBA doesn’t have to worry about making money on the talent college administrators wring to the tune of $11 billion on March Madness alone

The “free farm system” angle implies that the NBA and NCAA operate in a state of blissful symbiosis. Except, college basketball is quite popular and overlaps with the NBA season. From fall through winter through spring, NCAA hoops pulls ratings and ticket money that might otherwise go to its big brother.

Not only that, but fans often draw comparisons between college and pro ball that can reflect unfavorably on the latter. Mark Emmert’s sport is less a farm system than it is a competitor. 

So if you’re a business (and the NBA lockout reminded us that pro basketball intends to one), then what do you do to a competitor? If you can, you kill it. The age limit is college ball’s deus ex machina, a magical gift from David Stern that keeps the sport more relevant than it otherwise would be.

The NBA could take back that talent and go another step: They could cut deep into the NCAA talent ranks, deep enough to where fans would give up on college ball despite the tradition and French horns and ugly sweaters.

Pro basketball’s advantage: it’s easy to beat the nothing Mark Emmert insists on paying his employees. So what would it take to kill college basketball? Paying the top 100 recruits? Top 200? What price does the NBA need pay to own its own sport? 

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