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NBA Draft Analysis: AJ Griffin

Pacers Podcast & More

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament - First Round - Greenville Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

With less than a week until the draft lottery, Mark and Caitlin are back with a fresh episode of “Stock up, Stock down.” Breaking down a different prospect each week, the idea is for the hosts to watch a player, identifying reasons to be both bearish and bullish, with frame of reference from a few specific games as well as for the Pacers. Then, in zooming out with a broader focus, an invited draft expert reacts to the findings.

This week, PD Web of Cerebro Sports joins to talk AJ Griffin through the lens of Duke’s games against Wake Forest, University of Miami, and Texas Tech.

Be sure to check out PD’s fantastic (free to read) piece on AJG’s make-up as a shooter:

Stock up

Caitlin’s pick — Elite shot-making

Despite not playing serious minutes during the early portion of the season while recovering from a preseason knee injury, Griffin canned 44 percent of his threes as a freshman — a mark which, while already placing in the top-10 of high-major players, becomes even more impressive when considering the tough degree of difficulty on some of his attempts.

For example, although he spent most of the year deployed solely as a floor spacer, he didn’t just stash himself coyly in the corners, waiting for the ball to find him; he actively made himself visible with continuous spacing, moving off penetration and into the eyeline of his teammates, while also evading closeouts and creating separation.

Just look at this shot:

Locating the empty spot on the arc as Trevor Keels drives the defense down, Griffin reaches outside his shooting pocket to catch the slightly off-target pass and still manages to keep a three a three, side-stepping uphill to his left after drifting toward the right corner.

That’s a hard, professional play, even if not overly complicated. This past season, 26 NBA teams took one-dribble 3s as at least three percent of their overall shot diet, compared to zero when the Golden State Warriors won it all in 2015. Meanwhile, among the 18 players who attempted at least one such shot per game, the Pacers were only represented by Buddy Hield, who ranked 15th in conversion rate (31 percent).

According to Synergy, Griffin shot 45 percent on all jump-shots off the dribble (albeit not specifying how many or in which direction) as well as 41 percent on guarded catch-and-shoots. Granted, it might be fair to question whether he will have some limitations in terms of who he can automatically rise up and fire against as a 6-foot-6 wing; however, from repositioning off screens and shooting off his toes to finding passing windows and lulling defenders to sleep with an array of jab steps and step-backs, he wasn’t just a standstill shooter at Duke. He was an excellent shot-maker, who also happens to be built like a tank.

Mark’s pick — Shot-making and flashes of shot creation

There are shooters and there are shooters.

AJ asserts himself as one of the best I’ve seen with his preparation and the way he makes himself available. The shot release, height on the shot, and his pure touch set him apart. The gathers and ability to weaponize his shot pushes him that much further.

This seems like a pretty basic shot; lift from the corner, make himself available to Paolo Banchero in the slot while also make life a little harder on the tagger.

The jab is huge. Again, small, but it’s so sudden and fluid. Terence Shannon Jr. jerks just slightly on the jab and while he still gets the contest, AJ is unbothered. He’s adept at his set-ups and probes to create enough space for himself to get his shot off cleanly. His 44% from deep isn’t just wide open catch and shoots, the ease he routinely showed in the face of difficulty stood out.

While AJ was definitely a high level shot-maker, the bigger areas of unsureness comes from his ability as a shot creator. What is his actual level as a shot creator? Is there a higher ceiling there? What does he look like with wider lanes and better spacing? What happens if he finds a little extra verve in his movement?

I wouldn’t bet on the latter; it happens, but that’s a lot of hypothetical. I’m not near the “he could be a primary” view, but he had some really enticing moments attacking as a secondary that do make me scratch my head and wonder. I wouldn’t typically go to some of those lengths, but his relative lack of experience the past few seasons brings a lot of unknowns into the equation.

AJ is not a bursty player. He’s not going to create advantages routinely, especially without a screen.

The handle and the relative randomness with which he uses it is so captivating though. Sometimes he’s pulling a seven dribble combo and you’re not sure what the purpose is, but it works, and when it does, it’s a “OHHH ok?” type moment. It’s funky, it doesn’t entirely make sense, but it’s something I am so intrigued by. Given his age and already outlier skill as a shooter, it’s something I’d push all the chips in to see what can happen developmentally.

He’s not the most poppy around the rim, but his strength and touch are legitimate. The handle is very good. He’s going to get the drives, what can he do with them? I want to find out.

Stock down

Caitlin’s pick — Risk

Aside from shot-making, projecting the rest of Griffin’s game is tricky. As a defender, he’s capable of transforming into a brick wall and can be difficult to move, but he frequently gets snagged navigating screens, necessitating late switches that are too often too late. Here, for example, once he’s hung up, he needs to use the physicality he demonstrates in holding his ground in the post to immediately run the seam, actually getting his body into the roll-man, so as to take away the pocket pass.

Otherwise, all of the pressure will be on Myles Turner to defend two players at once, especially with how crafty NBA teams have become at distorting tags, as Paolo Banchero’s man does in cutting to the top of the key to eliminate any potential help. Moreover, though Griffin appears to have legs as strong as tree trunks to sit in a stance with power, there are spots where he comes out flat-footed and never gets back in front, resulting in blow by dribble drives.

Away from the ball, he has a decent sense for anticipating actions and denying hand-offs, but he can fall victim to losing his man and makes some strange positioning decisions, whether going away from the ball to very literally guard his zone in zone or defending with his back to the corner while digging the post, making himself blind to potential relocations.

To be fair, he doesn’t turn 19 until two months after the draft and some of that is probably teachable, but the issues he has with containing his opponent's first-step can be glaring and also seem to apply at times to his own footwork, particularly on his initial move. In that regard, he can struggle to get the most out of his gravity, relying on sauntering pump fakes, pivots, and turnarounds against closeouts, rather than bursting to the rim.

For frame of reference, during Chris Duarte’s final season at Oregon, 24 percent of his usage came from spot-up situations, with 17 percent of those shots occurring at the basket. Griffin, by comparison, sourced nearly half of his usage with Duke after catching the ball without a screen (48%), but only attempted 16 of his 151 spot-up attempts from close-range (10%), connecting on a grand total of four. Even when accounting for his generally constrained role, there’s a difference between getting run off the line and stepping in to shoot (which he does) and getting stranded in mid-range, leveraged into jockeying for a tough shot (which he also does and also - currently - makes).

That said, the experience curve is certainly in his favor, and it begs pointing out that he has a wide base on his shot, which could be shortening the distance he is able to cover with his first-step, leading to curved drives and accentuating his lack of vertical pop. And yet, all of those caveats are also sort of the point. Prior to this season, when he was eased back into action, he hadn’t played in a high school game since January 2020, suffering a knee injury that kept him out for the remainder of the pandemic-impacted season before opting out as a senior due to an ankle injury and to focus on training.

He doesn’t have that many actual reps in totality, let alone as a primary scoring option at the collegiate level. Again, for comparison’s sake: Duarte logged over three times as many possessions in isolation or as the pick-and-roll ball-handler during his sophomore season (121) as Griffin did as a freshman (36). For that reason, the rare glimmers of loopy cross-overs and fluid ease are certainly alluring. It’s tantalizing to picture him faking defenders out of their shoes and spinning back with his left in one fluid motion while manipulating much wider gaps as a complement to Tyrese Haliburton in Rick Carlisle’s spacious offense. But for a team in need of certain reinforcements on the defensive end that just spent the last year dismantling a roster that was never healthy at the same time, there’s also a fair amount of risk, requiring plenty of potentially long-term imagination when selecting inside the top-10 for the first time in 33 years.

Mark’s pick — Defense & Passing Vision

As Caitlin hit on briefly, the screen navigation for Griffin is a problem right now, something that was consistently picked on by opposing teams.

In the game against Miami in the ACC tournament, the Hurricanes put AJ through a whirlwind of screens again and again and again throughout the game. Duke finally resorted to switching with their center Mark Williams as the game wore on due to the problems they were having defend staggered screens.

While some of the off-ball and on-ball tendencies can be improved with technique and reps, I do wonder how much better the screen navigation will get. Guys with shoulders that wide tend to struggle getting around screens regardless of effort.

The other thing that routinely showed up with AJ on film was his playmaking and court vision. As good as he is moving around the perimeter without the ball, making plays when run off the line was an adventure at times.

It’s not an indictment of him as a prospect/player that he can’t make this play, but when we’re talking about a guy potentially being a viable on-ball creator, this is the stuff that stands out.

That kickout to the slot from under the basket with pressure coming; not an easy play! Yet, that’s an important separator when parsing out the draft class.

When he draws a trap off the ball-screen like he does here, you really want him to be able to hit that roller, not something he did often at Duke. The pass to the top of the key is still fine, but the defense resets and isn’t impacted.

AJ Griffin is a really darn good prospect, but as Caitlin hits on above and we hit on on pod, he is really a ways away from being an NBA plus. He does some things offensively that are incredibly elite and showcases at times potential for more outside his current role. How willing the team will be to commit to his developmental paths would be essential in drafting him.

Other topics:

  • Comparing his pre-college sample to what was shown at Duke
  • Making plays inside the arc
  • Movement skills
  • More

Enjoy the pod and look forward to more of these episodes as the draft approaches. Also, if you haven’t already, please be sure to Rate and Review the Indy Cornrows Podcast on Apple Podcasts and subscribe anywhere else you can listen!