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NBA Draft: The case for AJ Griffin at No. 5 (or 7 or ... )

Injuries slowed Griffin and derailed his bandwagon, but he turned in an elite season as a shooter and begs the question — what does he look like when healthy?

Miami v Duke Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

While Shaedon Sharpe is being dubbed a mystery home run swing because he decided to enter the NBA Draft without playing in college, I think Adrian Griffin Jr. is a similar mystery man for completely different reasons. In the first half of the season, many draft evaluators, myself included, argued for AJ to be among the top 5 or even top 3 of this year’s NBA Draft should he have a good freshman season at Duke. Well, in spite of having a fantastic season shooting the ball, Griffin’s stock has been damaged quite a bit by his lack of being able to do anything else and how that relates to his injury history.

Griffin’s talent and upside is such that I do think he should still be in contention for the Detroit Pistons at No. 5 overall pick because he does have some major advantages over the other possible selections. He definitely has the film advantage over Shaedon Sharpe. Griffin is listed at 6-foot-6 and 222 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, which gives him the size advantage over Jaden Ivey and Bennedict Mathurin. And being just 18 years old, he has the age advantage on Keegan Murray and Tari Eason. So, definitely don’t count AJ Griffin to the Pistons out—especially if the team decides to trade down or grab an extra first-round pick!

Let’s take a look at AJ Griffin’s per game stats from this past year before we dive into the breakdown of his game:

  • 10.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals. 0.6 blocks
  • 54.7% from two-point range, 44.7% from three-point distance, and 79.2% from the free throw line
  • 63.0% True Shooting, 7.0% Assist Percentage, 7.2% Turnover Rate, 18.8% Usage

Where AJ Griffin Excels on the Court

AJ Griffin is an ELITE-level shooter first and foremost. And no, this is not hyperbole as Griffin put up one of the best shooting performances by any freshman in NCAA history.

If that still does not convince you, then just take a gander at his shot chart.

AJ Griffin’s 2021-22 Shot Chart at Duke courtesy of CBB Analytics

It is rare you see so much red from all three-point areas on the court—and even his top of the key 32.1% is only slightly below-average for the toughest three-point shot area. And, all of this can be improved upon too!

AJ made threes moving off the ball, in spot-up situations, and even off the bounce. There is not a three-point shot he can’t make at an above average rate. I don’t like throwing out all-time greats when it comes to comps (because I think it is unfair to the prospect most times as it sets a ridiculously high bar that very few ever reach), but I do think if AJ’s shooting continues to improve we could be talking about a Klay Thompson level of shooter.

AJ is already one of the greatest freshman shooters in college basketball, so it stands to reason if he improves on that he will be on a whole other level than his peers. This is a guy that had a higher 3-point attempt rate than freshman Klay and AJ’s 44.7% from three was also 2.0% higher than Klay’s. AJ also made an absolutely absurd 45.7% of his catch-and-shoot attempts this year, 45.3% of his off-the-dribble jumpers and consistently flashed the ever-so-desired step-back three. When everything in your shooting profile is elite, then the projection will follow when thinking about what it looks like if this skillset improves.

AJ also has a great functional handle that will aid him greatly in his NBA development. Griffin was deployed as a ball handler enough this past season to see what he is capable to doing with the ball in his hands. While he did not get consistent separation from defenders (something I will circle back to), he did use his wide frame and long arms to his advantage when attacking. And you can see evidence of this by the fact that Griffin had only 25 turnovers all season—a rare instance of a prospect playing over 900 minutes and averaging less than 1 turnover per game.

And the best game to see AJ’s handle—coupled with another one of his strengths in his physicality—is the January 12, 2022 game against Wake Forest

You see Griffin able to shake guys, rock them to sleep, and pull side steps to get off a variety of shot types. Drives, step-back threes, side-step threes all thanks to his ball handling ability. It’s nothing fancy, but it works whenever he is asked to create like this. And like I said, this also highlights AJ’s physicality as you see him get into guys bodies and not get moved. If anything, Griffin was the one moving them—and this is up against the likes of 6-foot-8, 227-pound Jake Laravia and 7-foot, 235-pound Dallas Walton.

And as a final note with Griffin’s physicality, Coach Spins of the Box-and-One YouTube channel pointed out how much Griffin’s lower body strength helped him defend in the post. This could help Griffin’s versatility as his ability to hold up down low could even have him play the 4 in some lineups and maybe even full time.

Areas AJ Griffin Needs to Improve

Everything, everything, and I mean ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING about AJ Griffin depends on his medical evaluations. While I was leading the charge for Griffin to be a top-5 pick most of the year, I had two puddles of mud almost completely stop this charge once the season ended. The first obviously being Griffin’s injury history.

Griffin’s injury history really came to the forefront when he sprained his knee back in October. Before coming to Duke, AJ missed the 2020-21 season due to an ankle injury and in his junior season he suffered a dislocated knee that saw him miss the majority of that season. He also had another knee injury prior to that (I cannot find the exact details, but NBC Sports Washington does report on it in his profile) that caused him to miss almost two full years of action.

Like I said, EVERYTHING for AJ Griffin depends on what NBA medical staffs have to say about his long term health projections and just how much of a red flag this really is…but from what we have seen on the court, unfortunately, there are indicators that Griffin may have some limitations due to this injury history.

As stated by Matt Pennie and Sam Vecenie on the Game Theory Podcast throughout the season, AJ Griffin in high school was a different level of athlete than the AJ Griffin we saw this past year at Duke.

As I alluded to with Griffin’s ball handling, you did not see AJ separate from many defenders when he had the ball in his hands and a lot of evaluators attribute this to his injuries sapping him of explosiveness. This manifested itself in other ways as well which leads me to the second mud puddle that slowed down my charge for AJ Griffin in the top 5: functional athleticism

You did see AJ Griffin do things such as get up for big dunks, play good man-to-man defense against perimeter players on defense, or be able to blow by guys as the ball handler. A question asked by many a draft evaluator out there because of the is: is this below-the-rim, laterally-limited athlete just who Griffin is now permanently because of his injuries? This is an IMPOSSIBLE question I feel anyone can give a definitive answer to, but I bet the fact this question is being asked by so many is enough to scare NBA away teams.

For me, the most worrisome part about AJ Griffin’s entire profile is his 1.4 free-throw attempts per game. This encompasses the worries about how his injuries have affected his game as he did very little to initiate contact on offense despite being a good driver when asked to do so. PERHAPS this can be contextualized as AJ sticking to a role as the primary floor spacer for Duke…except he wasn’t.

For sure he was THE biggest three-point threat on the team, but he was one of five Duke players this past season who attempted 121 three-point attempts or more. This was a team that emphasized the three-point shot as evidence by the team’s rank among all NCAA teams when it came to three-point shots: 43rd in total attempts and 27th in made three-pointers. The troubling aspect of this, however, has to do with the fact that of the five Duke players that attempted 121 or more three-point shots, Griffin took the fewest two-point attempts at 137 attempts.

While his usage was low at 18.8% his free-throw attempt rate was even lower at 17.9%. Again, maybe you can say other guys were meant to attack the rim and that took away AJ’s opportunities to do that too. But, when you compare AJ’s numbers here to someone like Bennedict Mathurin’s freshman season it is not good. Mathurin had 19.6% Usage and a 41.7% Free Throw Attempt Rate last season. And when you look at other freshman this year, you find guys with a similar usage that had much higher free throw rates. Baylor forward Kendall Brown had an even lower usage rate of 17.1%, yet he managed a much higher free-throw attempt rate at 32.7%. Even someone who is a fellow shooting specialist in Caleb Houstan posted a usage of 17.9% and a free-throw attempt rate of 29.2%.

This is a major red flag in my opinion. The film backs up that Griffin can use his wide shoulders and long arms to finish around defenders, but he is not going through them—and I don’t know that I ever saw him draw a double team when driving to the hoop.

And this is to say nothing of his defense which is the most worrisome part about all of these, “is this just who AJ Griffin is now?” questions. As outlined, again, by Coach Spins AJ has a dreaded combination of bad technique and habits on defense of: lacking quickness to be a good perimeter defender, playing upright and on his heels which effects his ability to get through screens, fouls a lot when trying to recover, and letting guys cut backdoor on him often.

While there is the glimmer of hope with AJ’s ability to defend the guys in the post, I would not call his defense a complete lost cause. But, circling back to how his injuries have impacted his game, this may be the most damaging aspect of the result if his athleticism remains where it is at. This is the difference between AJ being utilized more as an off-ball help defending forward and someone that can play the wing to guard 2 and 3s at the very least.

This is why although the shooting may be able to project as Klay, the defense is light years away from matching that projection one-for-one. So, if Griffin could still be a fantastic shooter, but a questionable shooter, what does that projection look like?

AJ Griffin’s NBA Comparison & Fit on the Pistons

AJ Griffin reminds me most of current Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes. Both guys remain lethal shooters as well as consistently positive offensive players who get buckets no matter what. Both remain questionable on defense and better suited to playing a complementary role at power forward where their combination of shooting, ball handling, and physicality keep them mismatch problem on both ends of the court.

If you’ve noticed, I did not name a position for AJ so far because I think he ought to be kept away from the wing if he stays at his current level of athleticism. Slide AJ into the starting lineup of Cade, Jerami, Saddiq, Beef Stew and you have another floor spacer alongside Saddiq that immediately requires an extra defender to stay attached. It is easy to envision Saddiq and AJ in the corners with Cade and Beef Stew operating a high pick-and-roll with Jerami able to roam and be the wildcard. There would be NO crowded lanes or easy double teams here.

But, it would be dicey on defense since one of Saddiq, AJ, or Grant would have to operate as the other guard on defense. And this, for me, is what separates guys like Bennedict Mathurin and Johnny Davis from AJ: the ability to handle the toughest guard assignment. One of the reasons the Pistons started Cory Joseph so much last year was for this reason: to keep Cade from having to run the offense AND guard the Damian Lillards and Steph Currys of the League. With AJ, for the first season or two, the team would HAVE to make Cade guard opposing top guards since AJ is far behind on that end of the court.

BUT, if AJ is moved to a forward spot (perhaps necessitated by a Jerami Grant trade???), then he can come in next to Saddiq where his defensive limitations will not be so easily exploited. And seeing as he can defend the post then he might actually be good in that role. Whether they draft another guard like Mathurin, Ivey, or Davis or trade for a package that brings in someone like James Bouknight or Keon Johnson that would be great for AJ as it brings in another guard who at the very least has the athleticism to chase around the toughest guard assignment and move Cade into his much more effective defensive role off-ball helping to direct traffic.

Say the Pistons keep Grant and just draft AJ at No. 5, though. I think that actually works out very well for all parties involved. AJ can come off the bench as the Pistons most likely sign another guard in Free Agency to handle the starting defensive assignments. Grant continues to shine and up his trade value, or grow with the team—depending on what he wants long term. And guys like Killian, Hamidou, Beef Stew, and Marvin Bagley III (should he stay) get to play with a big time floor spacer who will give them more room to operate.

I know many out in our fanbase want someone that will come in and start day one—with the hope they will make an immediate impact. But, similar to Shaedon Sharpe, AJ Griffin could be a fantastic investment for the long term. Yes, I do see a lot of Harrison Barnes in Griffin right now, but he still does have upside as a ball handler and it is not a complete lost cause to think his athleticism will stay at its current level. Griffin is the biggest risk, however, out of the options at pick #5 because, it cannot be overstated, everything depends on what the Pistons medical staff determines about AJ Griffin’s long term health projection.

Thank you for always reading and engaging with us here at DBB! Please, let us know what you think of AJ Griffin in the comments and whether or not you would want the Pistons to select him with the 5th pick. Draft day can’t come soon enough!