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

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Blake Griffin's Limitless Ceiling on Full Display During Breakout Season
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

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—not Chris Paul—the best player on the Los Angeles Clippers?

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

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 Griffin's limitless potential, 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."

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

“He has an incredible understanding of his body now," said Davis. "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 about Griffin's future in April of 2013, during the last days of the uninspired Vinny Del Negro era:

"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.

NBA.com

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 he 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 NBA.com, 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 his 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:

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

“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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