In the least suspenseful announcement since, well, since the Clippers chose him with the first overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, Blake Griffin will be announced as the NBA Rookie of the Year today. It has been a foregone conclusion for so long now that Griffin would be the Rookie of the Year, that we've all grown a little blasé about it. But there was nothing blasé about Blake Griffin's first season in the NBA, and it's worth reflecting a bit on the occasion of this honor.
It's easy to forget at this point that when the season began, Griffin was not considered a lock for this award. After all, Blake wasn't the only first overall pick making his debut, and John Wall was much fresher in everyone's conscious. Indeed, in the pre-season survey of General Managers on NBA.com, Wall received more than twice as many votes as Griffin for ROY. Once the season started, that prediction looked solid - for about a week. Wall scored 28 and 29 in his second and third NBA games and it looked like it would be a real battle for the award. But by the time Wall sprained his foot in mid-November, Griffin had already established himself as head and shoulders above the rest of this rookie class, even Wall, and the league was free to start etching his name on the trophy.
Griffin won the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for each month of the season. He was selected by the coaches as an All Star reserve. He was third in the NBA in points-rebounds double doubles with 63, a Clipper record and the most by any NBA rookie in at least the last 25 seasons. He was one of four players this season to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. And almost as impressive as everything else, especially considering the team he plays for and the season he was following, he started all 82 games. So, yeah, he had a pretty good season.
Part of the reason that the Rookie of the Year seems so anti-climactic at this point is that he spent so much of the season setting very high expectations, and then exceeding them. His scoring repertoire entering his rookie season seemed somewhat limited, and I think most fans would have been happy with around 16 points and 8 rebounds per game this year. In his first month, he averaged over 20 and 11. In his second month, he raised that to 23 and 13. In his third month, it went up to 26 and 13. Of course he couldn't continue to increase his scoring every month, but it almost felt a little disappointing when he averaged 'only' 20.5 points and 10.4 rebounds in the month of March. Those are numbers that only Griffin, Dwight Howard, Kevin Love and Zach Randolph managed to put up this season, and somehow it felt like a let down.
When you start putting Griffin's rookie numbers into historical perspective, there's no mistaking the company he is keeping. Only seven rookies in the history of the NBA have averaged 22 or more points and 12 or more rebounds per game. Five of them are in the Hall of Fame, and a sixth (Shaquille O'Neal) will be when he's done playing. But as it happens, that kind of productivity isn't just impressive for a rookie - it's impressive for any player. Of all ten NBA players in the past 25 season to average 22 and 12, five are already in the Hall, and four more (O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard) are well on their way. Oh, and by the way, prior to Griffin, only O'Neal managed to accomplish this feat at the age of 21. I'm not saying Griffin's a lock for the Hall of Fame after one season in the league - I am saying that all the players who've had similar seasons, as a rookie or otherwise, have had Hall of Fame careers. You do the math.
And all of this talk of statistical productivity ignores the level of excitement that Griffin brought to the Clippers, and indeed to the entire NBA. Over on NBA.com, they've put together a video of all 214 of his dunks this season - it's awesome, and maybe even a little overwhelming. I just watched it, and I'm exhausted. Griffin turned the Clippers into a nightly sell out at Staples Center by the end of the season, and a huge draw on the road as well. There was always a chance that something spectacular was going to happen - and it usually did.
And here's the best part about Blake Griffin if you're a Clippers fan - he's only 21, and he's going to get much, much better.
Most of what he accomplished this season he did on pure physicality and athleticism. He managed to score over 22 points per game with an offensive skillset that is far from refined. His jumphook is little more than a guy elevating and tossing the ball toward the hoop. It rarely looks the same twice. He just 'athletes' the ball into the hole more often than not. But with hard work, practice and dedication, he will develop significantly more skills, and as he does a player who was pretty difficult to defend this season will venture into the realm of unguardable.
Just within the space of his rookie season we saw this process at work. At the beginning of the season, his go to move (more or less his only move, truth be told) was a spin from the right block. As defenses began to get wise to the spin move, he had to add something else. By the final month of the season, he had added a pretty reliable up and under move that was almost, dare I say, McHalian. Or take his free throw shooting. Through the end of 2010, he was shooting worse than 60% from the line. After the All Star Break he shot almost 70%, including 72.5% during the month of March. He'll continue to get better from the line. He'll also develop a more reliable jump shot, and more post moves. The things he needs to improve are all things that can be taught, and he's a willing student and a hard worker. He's still got a lot of of headroom.
Winning the Rookie of the Year award was relatively easy. But can Blake Griffin transform the Clippers? In some ways he already has. He's brought an excitement to the team that they've lacked for many years. He also makes them relevant. Even though they were never really in the playoff race this season, they were a significant NBA story all season long. Heck, the LA Times even sent a reporter on the road with them into March, which hasn't happened in several years. The Clippers figure to be better next season, and they'll go as high as Blake Griffin can take them.