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What A.J. Griffin brings to the Atlanta Hawks: ‘His best basketball is ahead of him’

It’s not an official Duke recruiting policy. But … it doesn’t hurt.

“I say, always take the pro kid. It’s in the genes, man,” says associate head coach Chris Carrawell. “If your dad played in the NBA and we are recruiting the kid, take him. At the worst-case scenario, he’s going to be a 1,000-point scorer — and at the best, you’re going to get the A.J. Griffins, the Seth Currys, (Mike) Dunleavys.”

That’s lofty company for Griffin to keep, especially after he just finished his first and only year of college basketball. (His father, Adrian, is a current Toronto Raptors assistant coach, after playing nine NBA seasons himself.) But you can see where Carrawell is coming from: Dunleavy Jr. played 15 years in the NBA after being picked third in 2002, and Curry’s eight years into his pro career despite going undrafted. The pedigree’s there — and now, after the Atlanta Hawks selected Griffin 15th overall in Thursday’s NBA Draft, so are similar expectations for success.

The good news? Despite a stellar freshman season at Duke, in which he played a key role in the Blue Devils advancing to the Final Four, there’s optimism the 18-year-old can be even more productive at the next level. Even his former coach agrees: “His best basketball,” Carrawell says, “is ahead of him.”

That sentiment exists largely for two reasons. The first is that Griffin, a 25-game starter for Mike Krzyzewski’s last team, was still coming off a lengthy hiatus prior to this season. Ankle and knee injuries sidelined Griffin the latter half of his junior high school season, as well as his senior year. (He ended up spending most of that senior year in Tampa, training near his father and the Raptors, who relocated from Toronto because of the COVID-19 pandemic.) Then, in one of Duke’s preseason practices in October, Griffin injured his right knee, which kept him from joining the rotation in full until December. Point being, it was a lengthy process just to get Griffin on the court.

And once he was back, Griffin had to figure out exactly what his role was. It wasn’t as a singular star — alongside four other draft picks, that wasn’t feasible — or with excessive volume. “He had to play a role for us where his shooting was a weapon,” Carrawell says. “So we told him, just be the best shooter in the country.” Griffin practically was; he eventually settled into that sharpshooting role and emerged as one of the best 3-point marksmen in the country. He made 44.7 percent of his 3s — a top-10 mark nationally among high-major players — on 4.1 attempts per game, and in nearly half the contests he played (12), he hit at least three 3s. Per Synergy, on spot-up attempts, Griffin averaged 1.165 points per possession (PPP), which rated as “excellent” and in the 91st percentile nationally.

Clearly, the kid can shoot it.

But what else can he do?

That’s where opinions on the 6-foot-6, 222-pound wing differ. Optimists in NBA front offices believe Griffin has a more well-rounded game than he was able to show last season, that he has the potential to be a 3-and-D wing of the highest caliber. Jimmy Butler was Griffin’s favorite player growing up, and the comparisons between the two have been frequent throughout the pre-draft process. Carrawell noted the similarity in their physical builds, adding that, “I don’t know if (A.J.) even understands his body yet.” Case in point: Griffin was so good as a spot-up shooter and in transition last season that, according to Synergy, those two actions accounted for more than 60 percent of his total offensive possessions … with no others accounting for even eight percent. That’s partly what makes Griffin a difficult evaluation. He finished with the No. 17 offensive rating nationally last season, per KenPom, and made 54.7 percent of his 2s — but the sample size was so small.

“But as these guys are seeing on the next level (when) they come to work out,” Carrawell says, “he can go off the bounce. You are getting a kid who can shoot, (but also) he’s going to be able to put the ball on the floor and create shots.”

The concern with Griffin is if those creation skills don’t materialize. The same applies on the defensive end, where Griffin’s frame suggests one thing and his actual movement skills are another. He struggled at times defending straight-line drives last season, not looking the part of the high-end high school athlete he was pre-injury. But as one of the draft’s younger players, and someone not even a year removed from serious injuries, Griffin still has room to grow into more of a well-rounded player.

Which means for the time being, Griffin’s shooting will be the biggest asset that immediately translates for Atlanta. Then, if his game continues growing beyond that?

We could be talking about Griffin years from now as one of this draft’s biggest steals.

(Photo: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)

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