The Evolution of Blake Griffin from Human Highlight Machine to NBA Superstar

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The Evolution of Blake Griffin from Human Highlight Machine to NBA Superstar
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Blake Griffin—human highlight machine or NBA superstar? 

Take your pick from the two, because in the minds of far too many people, he can't be both. Apparently, Griffin's status as a dunking phenom prevents him from ever taking the next step as a well-rounded basketball player. 

Well, that's just wrong. 

The two tags are not mutually exclusive, and it's quite possible to be both a superstar and a constant producer of SportsCenter-worthy highlights.

LeBron James does it for the Miami Heat. Kevin Durant does so for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Stephen Curry earns both labels while leading the Golden State Warriors, and so too does Paul George with the Indiana Pacers

Now you can add Griffin to the list for the Los Angeles Clippers

While keeping his team right near the top of the Western Conference standings as Chris Paul continues to rehab his shoulder, Griffin has made the leap. He's become a full-fledged superstar. 

 

Growing Offensive Capabilities

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Thinking that Griffin is "just a dunker" is stupid—moronic, even. 

Seriously, it's one of the most indefensible myths spouted out by ill-informed fans who clearly haven't taken the time to watch the Los Angeles superstar dominate opponents throughout the 2013-14 season. His game may not be pretty and smooth, but it's incredibly effective and based around so much more than dunking. 

How else do you average 23.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game? Last time I checked, it was literally impossible to drop a dime by dunking. The same goes for rebounding, and I'm pretty sure Griffin doesn't dunk the ball home over 10 times each contest. 

There are two keys to this: the development of his post game and improved capabilities shooting the ball from outside the paint. 

Early in his career, it was accurate to claim that Griffin couldn't score with his back to the basket. He couldn't. 

That started to change during his sophomore season, when the big man from Oklahoma began using his devastating spin with more and more frequency. But now it's very much false, as Griffin can score out of the post, and he does so quite often. 

Just look at the points per possession he's recorded in such situations over the course of his career, courtesy of Synergy Sports (subscription required): 

Infogr.am.

This season, Griffin has scored 0.96 points per possession out of the post, ranking No. 26 throughout the entire Association. And that's among all players who have gone to work at least 25 times with their backs to the basket, so there are a few guards scattered among those beating him, merely as the result of small-sample-size effects. 

He's shooting 48.2 percent in this situation and drawing plenty of fouls and and-1 opportunities. Everything points toward impressive play from the post, and there's one scary aspect I have yet to mention. 

Griffin has gotten better since Chris Paul separated his shoulder against the Dallas Mavericks.

Not only is he going to the blocks with more frequency, but he's also been even more effective once he receives the rock. He no longer needs feeds from a talented passer, because he can create his own looks. 

"You can scream all you want that Griffin doesn't have a post game," writes Grantland's Zach Lowe. "You are just wrong, and your argument looks increasingly like the hysterical shouting of a crazy person who points to a sunny sky and tells you it's raining."

But that's not the only area of improvement in his scoring arsenal. Take a look at the work he's done over the course of his career from 16 to 23 feet, just as an example: 

Year FG% FGA per game
2010-11 33.5 2.59
2011-12 37.1 3.76
2012-13 34.0 3.24
2013-14 40.8 4.57

There's obviously still plenty of work to be done, but Griffin's jumper is improving across the board. Not only is he making a higher percentage of his looks, but he's also firing away with much more frequency.  

Another way to look at this is through heat maps, which come courtesy of Basketball-Reference. Take a gander at the progression throughout Griffin's career, starting with his rookie season in 2010-11: 

Basketball-Reference

The perimeter game filled out a bit more during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, and it only kept getting better.

Here's 2012-13:

Basketball-Reference

Griffin started adding more of a three-point shot to his game, though he still contributed in limited fashion from beyond the arc. 

And now, the current 2013-14 campaign: 

Basketball-Reference

The colors are different because we're so early in the season. Griffin hasn't made enough shots to turn zones into more primary colors, but you can already see the trends starting to form. 

Not only is he hitting more shots from beyond the arc—eight three-pointers made is more than in the past two seasons combined—but he's also knocking down attempts from all over the court. In fact, he's even developing a new hot spot from the left elbow rather than doing the majority of his jump-shooting work along the baseline. 

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

As Griffin told The Associated Press (via ESPN) after helping beat the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 24, "(I want to be) a leader for us, knocking down shots and being able to mix up my game, going inside when I felt the need to and going outside when I needed to."

He can now. 

Griffin is an evolved player, and it's a shame so many people are overlooking that, especially because the evolution only grows stronger when you account for smaller improvements like his work from the charity stripe and his defensive play. 

  

Responsibility in the Clippers Offense

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Griffin's ascent to superstardom has been about more than just an improving game. He's been able to take control of a team and steer it to victory time after time. 

When Paul went down with a separated shoulder on Jan. 3 against the Dallas Mavericks, it would've been easy to assume that the Clippers would fall back in the Western Conference. However, nothing could be further from the truth. 

Although Jamal Crawford deserves a lot of praise, you can credit Griffin for L.A.'s ability to remain near the top of the pile. His game hasn't declined; if anything, it's taken a slight step forward even though he lost the player who created so many opportunities for him. 

The Clippers have gone 11-5 in CP3's absence, and Griffin has averaged 26.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game while shooting 55.4 percent from the field. But the numbers are one thing. 

The involvement is another. 

  USG% AST%
Before CP3 Injury 27.1 14.9
After CP3 Injury 30.3 22.9

As you can see from those stats, which come from Basketball-Reference, Doc Rivers has placed an incredible amount of trust in Griffin whenever the Clippers have the ball. Not only has his usage rate increased since the point guard was lost to injury, but his assist percentage has risen as well. 

They're all signs that Griffin has been much more active, and NBA.com's SportVU data shows just how involved he's been throughout the 2013-14 campaign. Below you can see the leading non-point guards in touches per game: 

  1. Kevin Love, 86.0
  2. Blake Griffin, 80.2
  3. Josh McRoberts, 76.8
  4. LeBron James, 75.0
  5. Joakim Noah, 74.8

Throughout the entire NBA, only 21 players record more touches per contest than Griffin, and it's because so much of the offense runs through him. In fact, it's gotten to the point that plays rarely unfold without the power forward receiving the rock on the left elbow. Even if he doesn't go to work with a scoring mentality, his ensuing pass kick-starts the offense. 

Joe Murphy/Getty Images

And that's one of the reasons that the All-Star starter is right up near the lead in secondary assists, at least among non-guards. Marc Gasol is the only qualified big man who records more hockey assists than Griffin's 0.9, and the LAC power forward stands out even more when we isolate the number of passes he throws each outing. 

Checking in at 55.6, Griffin throws fewer passes than only 30 players throughout the NBA, and he's only 0.2 per game behind Kyrie Irving, just to put things in perspective. 

There's no longer any doubt that he's become an offensive hub for the Clippers, and that's been the largest development in his ascent to superstardom. 

In the past, Griffin was a valuable player. He's never been "only a dunker," because such a player couldn't possibly have produced the numbers he blessed L.A. with during his first season out of Oklahoma. 

But he's so much more than that now. 

Griffin is taking over games, producing MVP-caliber numbers and—most importantly—spurring the Clippers on to victory after victory. Without him, LAC would've fallen well behind the top teams in the Western Conference, rather than currently sitting with a legitimate shot at overtaking everyone else once Paul gets back on the court. 

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And when CP3 does return, Griffin isn't just going to go away. That superstar status won't be revoked, especially from a player who is only 24 years old and still moving toward his prime, not falling out of it.

The LAC offense will only get more dangerous when this particular power forward is joined by another All-Star. And we can truly attach that All-Star descriptor to Blake's name at this stage of his increasingly impressive career. 

You're welcome to overlook Griffin, but you now do so at your own peril. 

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