John Wall, Blake Griffin face off for first time

Blake Griffin nails one of his impressive dunks that led to the rookie's big win in the all-star dunk contest last month.
Blake Griffin nails one of his impressive dunks that led to the rookie's big win in the all-star dunk contest last month. (Mark Ralston/afp/getty Images)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 1:29 AM

Around this time last year, John Wall was clumsily tackling teammate DeMarcus Cousins and celebrating a buzzer-beating layup that helped Kentucky win the Southeastern Conference tournament and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Blake Griffin, however, was whiffing at a piñata while celebrating his 21st birthday with his Los Angeles Clippers teammates, patiently rehabbing a season-ending knee injury and waiting for his chance to show that his franchise didn't err in taking him first overall in 2009.

A year later, Griffin has arrived in the league with the subtlety of a tornado, dunking on so many people on a nightly basis that when he was matched up against JaVale McGee in the All-Star Weekend slam dunk contest; Griffin elected to jump over a car instead. He has been so mesmerizing that Wall has practically been overlooked, despite putting up one of the best statistical seasons ever for a rookie point guard.

So, while Wall is on pace to become just the fourth rookie to average at least nine assists and leads all rookies other than Griffin in scoring (15.5), he has conceded that he won't be the third consecutive point guard to play one season in college for John Calipari to win rookie of the year. "Most likely, he's probably going to get it," Wall said. "Blake is a great player. He's had a great impact. He's a highlight reel waiting to happen. That's something the league hasn't had in a while, a power forward that's that athletic. Last one, I'd probably say, was Amare [Stoudemire]."

The 6-foot-10 Griffin displays superior athleticism and sustains high-energy effort on both ends. "You know what they call those guys? Superstars," Coach Flip Saunders said. "Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Magic [Johnson]. All the great players are the guys that have the unbelievable talent, but they also play extremely hard and they have great competitiveness and that's what he has. That's why he a special player. He's going to be one of the elite players in this league for a long time, as long as he can stay healthy."

Wall and Griffin shared the court when they connected on a ridiculous bounce-pass alley-oop and reverse two-handed dunk in the Rookie Challenge last month. But on Saturday, Wall will get a sense of what it's like to play against Griffin as the Wizards welcome him to the Verizon Center for the first time. Griffin is about to become the first rookie since Shaquille O'Neal in 1992-93 to average at least 22 points and 12 rebounds in his rookie season, and the first rookie since Tim Duncan in 1998 to be named an all-star by coaches.

"You know, I wanted to be an all-star by my second year and it's kind of like my second year, I guess," said Griffin, who sat out all last season with a stress fracture in his left patella. "At the beginning of the year I didn't know what to expect and at the end of last year I was wondering where I was going to fit in in our team and all that. I got the opportunity and thankfully my teammates and coaches have been great about helping me. It's just kind of come all at once to be honest."

This is the second time in three years that two No. 1 overall picks played their rookie year in the same season, but Chicago's Derrick Rose, the top pick in 2008, ran away with the rookie of the year award despite the presence of Greg Oden, the top pick in 2007, who returned from microfracture surgery on his right knee.

Griffin's dominance has raised questions about his status as a "true rookie" since he participated in summer league, training camp and suffered the injury in the final exhibition game last season. Former Wizard Al Thornton was a member of the Clippers when Griffin was drafted and said teammates had already given him the nickname "Amazing."

Griffin readily admits that he used his time away from basketball to take note of how veterans prepare for each game and the difficult adjustment that rookies have to make going from college to the NBA. The experience also made him more grounded and appreciative of his newfound fame.

"Sitting out last year kind of put all this in perspective, because I was kind of forgot about. You have to not take yourself too seriously and not let it go to your head," Griffin said. "I think I'm a more mature person and a more mature player than I was last year, which helps. I kind of got to see, watch up close and study. Just seeing how guys manage the game, manage the season and all that stuff, it's tough, so it kind of prepared me a little bit to know that at the beginning of the season, I had a bad game and I'd be like, 'There's one more tomorrow.' That's the best thing about being in the NBA, it's 82 games, you've got plenty of opportunities to redeem yourself."

When Wall sprained his left foot in Chicago on Nov. 13, he had been averaging 18.1 points and 8.8 assists and had recorded a triple double in his first eight games. At the same time, Griffin averaged 16.6 points and 10.8 rebounds. Griffin had his breakout game nearly a week later, when he scored 44 points with 15 rebounds and seven assists, and it has been a one-man race ever since.

Wall said he doesn't have a problem with Griffin being considered a rookie. "People are going to say different things. It's just like being a red-shirt freshman; I can't control it," Wall said. "The only thing I can do is just go out there and play basketball the best I can. I think if I didn't have a couple of injuries at the beginning of the season, I would've been closer in the candidate race. I would've been myself more. But things happen. You move on with the season and just prepare myself to finish the season strong for next year."

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