Mark Heisler: Griffin exceeds hype

Phenom forward turns Clippers into an attraction

March 13, 2011|By Mark Heisler, Tribune Newspapers

Catching up with Blake Griffin

That's just it. You can't catch up with him, or no one has yet.

No one saw him coming until he broke out as an Oklahoma sophomore. Even as runaway No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, no one thought he'd be this good this soon.

In the biggest surprise of all, he may just be warming up.

Before Blake, phenoms didn't come out of nowhere, they were preceded by marching bands, or jet escorts.

LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine in high school. Kobe Bryant was an All-Star starter at 19, before he was a Lakers starter.

When Shaquille O'Neal was an LSU junior, you didn't have to look to know he was coming, you could feel the Earth move.

When Griffin was an Oklahoma freshman, NBA people didn't look, knowing he wasn't coming out after having a knee scoped, despite making the All Big-12 team.

ESPN's Chad Ford ranked 100 players after that season, none of them Griffin.

Then came his sophomore year, as in Who Will the Lucky Lottery Team Be? The Clippers hit the jackpot and found he was even better than they thought.

On top of his amazing running, jumping, dunking, power game, etc., he could play facing the basket, handle the ball, pass it and shoot it.

Coach Mike Dunleavy donated Zach Randolph to the Grizzlies just to get him out of the rookie's way, not that he expected Blake to match Zach's 20-10 average.

"He'll get the 10, but I don't know about the 20," Dunleavy said. "It may be more like 17-10 his first season."

Finally debuting after a year off injured, Griffin averaged 21-12 in November, 23-14 in December and 26-13 in January.

If few players ever had his size, hops, quickness and athleticism — Hakeem Olajuwon? — Griffin's skill level went almost unnoticed as the "Top 10 Highlights" became "Blake and Nine Others."

Who leads the Clippers in 3-point percentage? Mo Williams at 50 percent, but Griffin is at 39 percent.

"I'm trying to think of someone who was like him as a player," Kings personnel director Jerry Reynolds said. "He has the same kind of toughness and ability to post up and run the court Karl Malone had — but he's way ahead of where Karl was at that age.

"Tim Duncan was more skilled but not as athletic. If those are the two best power forwards, if Blake stays healthy, he should be right there with them."

"I watch the Clippers now just to see him."

So do a lot of people, though Griffin's I-can't-watch leaps and dives have fans holding their breath.

"For me, it's not even like that," Griffin said. "It's not kamikaze. I hear that all the time. I think for me, I can cover up some mistakes or make up for certain things by playing harder.

"I've got to play hard because I'm not where I want to be in certain areas. Because of what happened last year, having to sit out all last year, I think that makes people want to say that."

That's not it. Whatever the danger level, fans hold their breath because he's so precious.

If some are crossing off the days until July 1, 2014, when the Lakers can sign him, Blake is the Clippers' to lose … not that they haven't been up to the challenge before.

"That's the way it should be," Griffin said. "This is the place I'm starting out, it's a great place — but things have to keep moving forward."

The Clippers were 22-40 as he spoke. They started the weekend 25-41 with a 4-1 record under the new point guard, Williams and an eye-opening win in Boston.

If this is where honeymoons have always gone to die … quickly ... this is their best ever.

Technical difficulties: The Magic's Dwight Howard was suspended with his 16th technical foul, but the Knicks' Amare Stoudemire was spared when his was rescinded.

That led Magic coach Stan Van Gundy to compare Moammar, er, David Stern to unnamed tyrants.

"I would just render a guess that we're not going to be hearing from him for the rest of the season," Stern said on the radio, predicting "Stan and the team for which he works (will) rein in his abhorrent behavior."

That means they got a call saying, "One more word from Oscar the Grouch and you're out $1 million."

mheisler@tribune.com

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