by Patrick Crawley / @BasketballFiend
Fame. Celebrity. Packed arenas. Screaming fans. All of the lights. All of the lights. Kanye rapped about it. Now Blake Griffin lives it.
Just 11 weeks into his rookie season, Griffin, the first overall pick in 2009, is already the most exciting player in the NBA — the League’s capeless Superman, flying through the air with the greatest of ease and viciously dunking on opponents on the way down.
And, like the great supermen before him, Griffin has a hype train befitting of his monstrous talent trailing behind.
Daily feature stories and gravity-defying dunks so ubiquitous they’ve become as much a part of SportsCenter as “Bartender! Jack!” have vaulted him to a level of recognition normally reserved for guys named LeBron, Dwyane and Kobe.
Thanks to Griffin, the Clippers are actually selling out non-Heat, non-Lakers games – six sellouts and counting, according to their public relations staff. His skills are improving by the game (witness his near triple-double against Golden State on Saturday), and with every new benchmark, the legend of Blake continues to grow.
Rookie of the Year, Dunk Contest champion, first year All-Star. These are all achievements within his reach.
But there’s a flip side to this kind of acclaim. An ugly side. A side that, placed in the hands of the wrong person, can lead to megalomaniac displays of hubris – like, say, an hour-long television special devoted to one sentence: “I’ve decided to take my talents to South Beach.”
So how is Griffin handling the hype? Is he experiencing any Kings James-esque separations from reality?
“No. No. I think Blake handles it so well,” said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, vigorously shaking off any off-court comparisons to LeBron. “He just wants to win. He wants to get better. He works really hard and you can see some of the improvements.”
That last part is certainly true. Griffin’s development is evident not just in his numbers (he averages 22.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game), but also in the on-court improvements he has made this season (case in point: his game-deciding three-pointer against the Warriors this weekend).
But hard work and humility aren’t necessarily synonymous. There’s a chance success has gone to his head, right?
“He’s not really a cocky guy,” DeAndre Jordan said. “He’s around a lot of young guys and veteran guys who aren’t cocky or arrogant, so as long as we keep him like that he’ll be good.”
Coach agrees. Griffin’s head is big, but it’s not from ego-swelling.
“He’s got a great demeanor about him,” Del Negro said. “He’s a great kid. He’s about the right stuff.”
So what about the pressure of being the League’s next rising star? Hype stung the careers of Vince Carter and Stephon Marbury. Any chance the same fate could befall Griffin?
“I think he handles it well,” Ryan Gomes said. “He’s taking it game by game and not getting overwhelmed with his first season. He takes the right approach in practice, in trying to get better every day.
“He’s saying, ‘This is my first year and I want to go out there and see where I stand among the elite.’ And he’s been standing pretty tall the first half of the season.”
Griffin ranks second in the NBA in doubles doubles (35), fourth in rebounds (12.9 per game) and 12th in scoring (22.8 points per game).
He has conquered many of the League’s best defenses (24 points in a win over New Orleans on November 22; 29 points against Chicago in a win on December 18; 24 points in a win over Miami on January 12) and continues to throw down impressive dunks, despite opposing defenses keying on his ability to get to the rim.
He certainly doesn’t appear to be wilting under the pressure.
Still, the Clippers’ toughest test of the season lies ahead.
Griffin and Co. play 12 of their 14 games in February on the road, and those two home games are against Chicago and Boston. Worse still, the road trip ventures through Miami, Orlando and Oklahoma City (three of the toughest teams in the NBA to beat at home).
Sure, All-Star weekend will cut the trip roughly in half, but it’s still a daunting challenge.
“It’s a big month,” Gomes said. “It’s a big test for us. We can’t put ourselves in a tough situation. We’ve gotta be .500 at the least.”
The Clippers’ chances of making the Playoffs rest heavily on their ability to lead a February road renaissance. And with a 3-14 road record, they are far from a strong team away from home.
How Griffin responds to the challenge will go a long toward defining his young career (especially with Eric Gordon out 3-4 weeks with a wrist injury), but the team is optimistic. Coming off a 10-game stretch in which they’ve gone 7-3 with wins over the Heat and Lakers, confidence is atypically high in Clipper Land. And their young superstar is a big reason why.
“Making his teammates better, helping everybody play at a higher level. That’s the gift he has,” Del Negro said. “I think he’ll even get better as his career matures. We have to get better in a lot of areas but we’re growing, and Blake is obviously the catalyst along with Eric Gordon.”