AJ Griffin brings intensity to Pacers practice

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As a child, AJ Griffin had a ringside seat early in Jimmy Butler’s NBA career. Next year he will play against him in the NBA.

Griffin was eight when the Chicago Bulls drafted Butler with the final first-round pick in 2011. Griffin’s father, Adrian Sr., was the Bulls’ staff coach at the time and worked with Butler for the next four seasons.

AJ Griffin watched Butler become an All-Star up close, earning his first of six All-Star nominations in 2015, Adrian Griffin’s final year with Chicago. AJ followed Butler as his father and eventually Butler moved on to other organizations. As young Griffin grew into a promising player in his own right, he took what he learned from Butler and other NBA stars he saw growing up and applied those lessons to his game.

Now 18, Griffin will be lottery-drafted next week, possibly by the Pacers, who own the sixth overall pick. He had individual training in Indiana Monday morning at the Ascension St. Vincent Center. When later asked by the media if there were any players he models his game on, the former Duke forward immediately brought up Butler.

“I just know his work ethic, what he does just to perform at this level,” Griffin said. “That’s what I’m looking at – being able to come in every day and work hard knowing it’s going to pay off.”

It’s not hard to see the similarities between Griffin and Butler, at least from a physical standpoint. Despite being one of the youngest players in this year’s draft class (he won’t turn 19 until Aug. 25), Griffin has the physique of a grown man. Listed at 6-6 and 222 pounds, Griffin’s physical gifts help him project himself as a potential two-way threat in the mold of Butler or Celtics All-Star Jaylen Brown.

Griffin also displayed a work ethic similar to Butler’s during his only season at Duke.

His final high school game was in January 2020, as he missed most of his junior and senior seasons due to the combination of injuries and the pandemic. He was then slowed by a preseason knee sprain before the start of Duke’s season. As a result, Griffin didn’t play big minutes for the Blue Devils right away.

He only hit double figures once in his first eight games, but started stringing together strong performances in December. Coach Mike Krzyzewski moved Griffin to the starting lineup Jan. 12 at Wake Forest, and the rookie delivered, totaling 22 points on 8-for-11 shooting (3-of-5 from 3-point range).

From there, Griffin took on a bigger role, becoming a key part of Krzyzewski’s final team, helping Duke win the ACC regular season title and reach the Final Four. Griffin has hit double numbers in 22 games this season, with Duke going 20-2 in those contests. He dropped a season-high 27 points in a win over rival North Carolina on February 5 and finished the year averaging 10.4 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.

Most impressive – and one area where Griffin stood out from a player like Butler – was his 3-point shot. He went 71 for 159 from 3-point range at Duke, a .447 3-point percentage. Griffin had 12 games where he knocked down three or more threes, displaying a smooth and consistent stroke even with an unorthodox wide stance.

With the combination of his shooting and his physical tools, Griffin is almost a lock to take in the top 10 draft picks. He practiced for Portland, which has the seventh overall pick, on Thursday and has a few more workouts scheduled over the next few days.

2022 draft workouts: AJ Griffin

Griffin said his goal in practices was to show off his skills beyond shooting, primarily his ability to create with the ball and his hands and locking defense. More than anything, however, Griffin said he wants to attack every workout with “intensity”.

It’s definitely a defining factor that has been instilled in Griffin throughout his life. He saw it firsthand watching Butler, but he also learned it at home, playing one-on-one with his older siblings, his brother Alan (who played at Illinois and Syracuse ) and his sister Aubrey (who played at Connecticut). Griffin recalled how it would bother him when he lost to his siblings when he was little, saying “it sparked the will in me not to have that feeling”.

Once at Duke, Griffin had the chance to learn from one of the sport’s all-time competitors – Krzyzewski.

“His level of competitiveness, I think it rubbed off on everybody,” Griffin said. “Especially last year because it was like you wanted to do everything you could to win everything. He taught us so much that year and that’s something I’m going to take with me for the rest of my career.”

On paper, Griffin would seemingly fill a need for the Pacers. Indiana has had a small forward hole the past two seasons, with TJ Warren missing all but four games in that span due to injury. Warren is a free agent this summer and a player like Griffin could offer a potential replacement in the same position as Indiana’s emerging young core, which already includes third-year guard Tyrese Haliburton and 2021 first-round picks Chris Duarte. and Isaiah Jackson.

Griffin said Monday he believes he “can make an impact right away” as a 3-D winger who can knock down shots and compete on the defensive end. He thinks he would “fit in perfectly” alongside a playmaker like Haliburton, who thrives on creating looks for his teammates.

He is ahead of most other players in his draft class thanks to his father’s experience as a player and coach. Adrian Griffin played nine seasons in the league, spending time with five different teams.

Adrian retired when AJ was just four years old, but immediately got into coaching. He spent two seasons as an assistant in Milwaukee before joining Tom Thibodeau’s staff in Chicago. He was there for Thibodeau’s entire five-year tenure, then coached in Orlando and Oklahoma City before joining Nick Nurse’s staff in Toronto in 2018, earning a championship ring in his first season with the Raptors.

The eldest Griffin doesn’t have much in common with his son as a prospect – Adrian was undrafted from Seton Hall in 1996 aged 21 and only reached the NBA for three years later. But he knows a lot about the pre-draft process from his time as a coach, which AJ says has given him a leg up on his peers over the past few months.

“He just says keep working,” he said of his father’s advice. “Know that you are going to have trials and tribulations throughout your career, but you are going to overcome them. And you are going to see the joy of overcoming those obstacles.”

There will still be plenty of hurdles to overcome, but Griffin’s hard work should pay off next Thursday. He received an invitation to be in the Green Room at Barclays Center on draft night and admitted he sometimes lets his mind wander about how he will feel when commissioner Adam Silver calls his name.

“I’ve been counting the days, yeah,” Griffin said. “But I just think (try) to stay in the present and be able to put everything I can into each day. Because the more you focus on the draft, I feel like the longer it takes I just been trying to focus on every workout.

“But I know it’s coming soon. I’m really excited.”

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