Upside is often a term thrown around to describe young players who have either accomplished nothing or have yet to scratch the surface of what they might become. This term typically is not reserved for someone of Blake Griffin’s caliber.
But perhaps it should be.
Although Griffin missed his entire first season due to injury, he exploded out of the gates as a rookie, scoring 22.5 points per game to go along with 12.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists. He was assertive with the ball, searching out contact and finishing with power, going to the line a career-high 8.5 times.
His second year was impressive as well. Griffin averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds for the second consecutive season. However, teams became increasingly more physical, beginning to force Griffin away from the rim and further out onto the perimeter.
By his third season in the league Griffin’s scoring dropped to 18.0 points per game and his rebounding fell to 8.3 per game. The arrival of Chris Paul took some of the weight off Griffin’s shoulders to be the primary option, but Griffin’s game needed to evolve in order to be a more complete offensive player. Defenses were now frustrating him and leaving him open for mid-range jumpers, expecting him to miss.
The hiring of Doc Rivers might have been the best thing to happen to Griffin, as the head coach refocused the offense around Griffin’s strengths. Rivers, a former NBA point guard who once played a season with the Los Angeles Clippers, has been able to convince Paul to play at a faster pace. This increased pace might not be ideal to Paul, but it has allowed Griffin to flourish in an open-court system.
Griffin’s unique ability to create off the dribble, pass, finish above the rim and hit mid-range jumpers are now being taken advantage of in lieu of Paul’s methodical, preferred style of play. The increased tempo allows Paul and Griffin to share playmaking responsibilities without taking away possessions from each other, let alone role players.
New system aside, Griffin’s offensive talents are still in development. That might be a scary realization for the rest of the conference, considering he is already a 21 point per game scorer for his career. But why is his game still improving and which area of his game will be the next to develop?
One of the most blatantly inaccurate talking points surrounding Griffin over the years was that he was merely a dunker. How many times did you hear that Griffin had no post moves, or that he couldn’t shoot outside of 10 feet?
Those who watched Griffin closely over the years were the largest proponents of his development. Fortunately, the numbers back Griffin’s supporters.
Griffin’s jumper has improved noticeably since coming into the league, especially the last two seasons. According to basketball reference, Griffin took 15.4 percent of his field-goal attempts from 16 feet and further as a rookie and made a lousy 29.8 percent of them. Last season, Griffin took 26.7 percent of his field-goal attempts from the same distance, but made 37.2 percent.
The development of Griffin’s jumper is likely to continue to improve. Imagine if Griffin’s range and consistency eventually extend to the three-point line? Griffin will be a nightmare to defend, and that is exactly where his game seems to be heading.
Griffin’s jumper is improving and it is worth noting, according to Grantland’s Kirk Goldberry.
Away from the basket on offense, Griffin has never been great, but this isn’t unusual in young power forwards. The key questions with him involve trajectories: Is he getting better? Is he diversifying his scoring portfolio? The answers there are definitely “yes” and “yes.” His rookie season, Griffin made only 33 percent of his midrange jumpers. That’s bad; as a whole, the league makes 39 percent of these shots. However, his second season that number rose to 36 percent, and this year he’s at 39 percent. In four seasons, Griffin has gone from a bad jump-shooter to an average one.
Griffin’s extended range coincided with Clippers finishing as the highest-scoring team in the league last season. Teams can no longer afford to sag off Griffin on pick-and-pop situations to prevent Paul from attacking the rim. To make matters worse, teams also have to fear Griffin’s playmaking ability.
There are not many forwards in the league who can handle the ball well enough in the open court to beat a point guard off the dribble, let alone prevent said point guard from turning them over. Griffin is one of the few bigs in the league able to handle the ball well enough to create for himself and others.
Need more evidence? Digest this statistic for a second: According to basketball reference, since Griffin entered the league in 2010, only 14 players have shot 50 percent or better from the field while assisting on at least 16 percent of their teammates’ field goals for a season. Griffin and LeBron James are the only players on that list in each of the last four seasons.
Griffin’s court vision and passing ability combined with his physical tools make him an extraordinarily difficult matchup. Furthermore, when sharing the floor with Chris Paul, Griffin’s talents are elevated even further because the defense has to key on Paul just as much. Pick your poison.
While there is plenty for Griffin to improve on offensively—his post moves need more refinement—his upside is also calculated based on the other players on the floor. J.J. Redick and Spencer Hawes are key complementary pieces. Both can keep the floor spread with their outside shooting, but they are also good passers who can set up Griffin for scoring opportunities.
Pieces like Redick and Hawes are key to Griffin’s development. The better Griffin's teammates complement his skill set, the more realistic fulfilling his upside becomes. His game begins to develop because the other players on the floor are themselves threats when combined with Griffin’s talents.
Never known as a good defender, Griffin’s upside here is somewhat limited due to his physical attributes. According to Draft Express, he does not have a large wingspan (6’11.25”) and at 6'8" he is of average height for his position.
Fortunately, physical abilities do not solely make a good defender. Griffin’s focus during his first three seasons was scoring as much as possible, in as many ways as he could. Rivers is attempting to change that mindset and already seems to be making progress, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Broderick Turner, who quoted Griffin as saying:
The past few years or so, all I've ever heard is everything I can't do...I take pride in those things people say I can't do, and [defense,] that's one of them. There's a long list...So, I just use that as motivation and try to get better. Obviously there are areas I need to get better in, but at the same time, I think sometimes people get a little carried away.
The fact that Griffin realizes what his deficiencies are and is now using them as motivation to improve says a lot. There are plenty of players who knew exactly what they needed to improve upon early in their career, but never were able to do so.
Heck, Dwyane Wade still can't shoot threes.
Griffin’s attention to detail, understanding of Rivers’ defensive principles and nightly commitment on the defensive end of the floor seemed to be improving as the 2013-14 season came to a close. According to basketball reference, Griffin's defensive rating from the beginning of the season until the end of February was 102.2. From March until the end of the regular season that rating dropped to 99.7.
What Griffin needs to focus on is his awareness and effort level defensively. Far too often Griffin was slow to hustle back on defense, or rotate properly, thus allowing an easy basket. Those are the types of effort plays that Rivers will demand from his entire team, because they will be the difference between reaching the conference finals and failing again to advance past the second round. Additionally, that level of commitment will be critical if Griffin is to reach his potential on defense.
Adding up the sum from both ends of the floor it is clear that Griffin has, by far, the most upside of anyone on the roster. At age 25, he has already developed into one of the league’s best players. Still, demanding more from him is certainly a legitimate request.
Griffin’s desire to improve is the final characteristic that sets his upside apart from anyone else’s on the roster. Combining all of the aspects above with hard work will allow Griffin’s upside to be realized; converted from myth into reality.