By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009
NORMAN, Okla. -- Fresh off his 33-point, 14-rebound demolition of intrastate rival Oklahoma State on Saturday, Oklahoma sophomore Blake Griffin's feet were surrounded by a sea of red and white balloons. After kicking them around, Griffin picked up a white balloon, then mimicked LeBron James's pregame talcum-powder-toss. Griffin lofted the balloon high above his head, spread his arms out wide and looked toward the rafters as it slowly descended.
Assuming Griffin decides to leave college basketball after this season -- a decision he says he has yet to make -- he is likely to have something else in common with James besides wearing No. 23: Most NBA executives and scouts believe Griffin will be the first player chosen in June's NBA draft.
And, with the Washington Wizards (15-50) having the second-worst record in the NBA, there is a decent chance under the league's lottery system that Griffin could team up with Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison next season. Griffin, a muscle-bound, 6-foot-10, 251-pound forward, has established himself as college basketball's best player this season. He leads the NCAA in rebounding at 14.2 per game, leads the Big 12 Conference in scoring at 22.1 points per game and has the sixth-ranked Sooners in contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"I think one of the reasons why [Griffin is] considered the number one pick is, for sure, for a lot of people he's a safe pick," said an NBA player personnel director, who requested anonymity because of league rules prohibiting teams from speaking about underclassmen. "He's going to be a bona-fide rebounder, night in and night out, and a lot of his scoring is through sheer effort. How he's going to affect the game, I think Karl Malone is a pretty good comparison."
Griffin has become a nightly fixture on the "top plays" segment of ESPN's "SportsCenter" because of his vicious dunks, and he is putting up numbers comparable to Michael Beasley, last year's Big 12 player of the year and the No. 2 pick of the draft last season. But as one NBA scout said recently, Griffin "is a little meaner."
"A lot of people ask why I play so angry out there," Griffin said. "It's not that I am angry. It's not that I want to hurt somebody. It's just I feel there's a lot of people out there that don't have respect for me, that don't have respect for our team. So I feel like every time I go out there, I need to prove something to them."
After Griffin totaled 40 points and 23 rebounds in a win over Texas Tech on Feb. 14, Red Raiders Coach Pat Knight compared Griffin to the Terminator for the expressionless destruction he administered on his team. Griffin single-handedly outrebounded Oklahoma State 19-18 in their first meeting in late January. In the rematch on Saturday, Griffin again overwhelmed the Cowboys, spinning along the baseline for a tomahawk slam, blocking a shot into the tunnel some 25 feet behind the basket and intercepting a pass, sprinting up the floor and soaring over some unfortunate soul for a one-handed dunk.
"He may be the best player I've ever gone against, as a player and a coach," said Oklahoma State Coach Travis Ford, who played with future NBA all-star Jamal Mashburn at Kentucky. In addition to his height, Ford said Griffin is "the fastest guy on the court. Jumps the highest on the court. Strongest guy on the court. Great skills. Great touch. Great understanding. Great attitude. Great demeanor. Great team player, and he understands the other team is going to send everybody at him and it isn't going to bother him."
Griffin worked out with San Francisco trainer Frank Matrisciano last summer to increase his strength and explosiveness after suffering injuries to both knees his freshman season. He said he also developed the mental toughness to withstand the challenges that awaited him this season.
Griffin has taken more than his share of abuse from opposing teams desperate to find ways to slow him down or get him to lose his focus. Utah's Luka Drca tripped Griffin and received a flagrant foul and a two-game suspension from his coach. Southern Cal's Leonard Washington received another ejection for hitting him below the belt. Griffin has a scar under his right eye from an elbow to the face against Rice that resulted in six stitches.
After Oklahoma State forward Malcoln Kirkland shoved him in the back on Saturday, Griffin stumbled out of bounds, turned around and started bouncing up and down, angrily. He then puffed his cheeks before exhaling. "After a while, it just takes a toll on you. For the most part, I try to let it slide off my back," Griffin said. "You want to react to it. Afterward, sometimes, when I think about it, I wish I could do something about it. But during the game, I want to play too badly to do something stupid and get a flagrant or something like that."
Griffin suffered a concussion after receiving two blows to the face in a loss against Texas and missed the Sooners' next game -- a loss against Kansas -- with dizziness and headaches. When he returned against Texas Tech, Griffin didn't show any hesitation as he leapt over the scorers' table and crashed into the stands to save a loose ball. "That's how I've always played, that's how I was taught to play," said Griffin, the son of a high school basketball coach. "One concussion, one injury wasn't going to keep me from playing the way I know how to play."
He says the rough tactics of opponents do not compare to his physical one-on-one battles against his older brother in the front yard of their Oklahoma City home. "Most of our one-on-one games ended in a fight," Taylor Griffin, 22, said. "Usually it was because I was beating him. He would start throwing balls and I'd come back at him and that's how it escalated. It's typical with two guys who are competitive as us. Who knows? Maybe it helped him."
Blake, who turns 20 on Monday, would've been a top 10 pick last year but came back to mature physically and mentally; play one more year with Taylor, a 6-7 senior; and possibly win a national championship. (Oklahoma will play Oklahoma State Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament.)
Oklahoma Coach Jeff Capel supported Griffin's decision for reasons that extend beyond the obvious benefits to his program. "When you're a high draft pick, you're expected to be one of the faces of a franchise or a city, for their future. And I didn't feel like he was really ready for that -- most guys aren't ready for that," Capel said. "But by coming back, I knew he would be a guy who would be one of the faces of college basketball and definitely, the face of our program. The pressure of having to carry that for a year would prepare him for the next level. I think he's handled it really, really well."
Griffin said the attention he has received about possibly being the No. 1 pick hasn't been a distraction for him or the team. "It's really not, because our whole team is focused on having a great season. I don't want to talk about anything else, or my future," Griffin said. The attention is "an honor. It's something that I've worked for. I can't imagine a college basketball player that wouldn't want that, that works really hard. It also humbles me."
Asked Saturday if he had played his final game at Lloyd Noble Center, Griffin paused and said: "I have two more years here. We'll see."
Griffin, though, is well aware of the teams in contention for the top picks in the NBA draft. When reminded that no player has worn the No. 23 in Washington since a certain all-time great left town, he quipped: "I might find a new number. You never know."