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Is Blake Griffin a Sure Thing?

OK, I'm not going to come right out and say it.  The ClipperSteve reverse mojo may or may not carry over to this guy Perrin, and I've been wrong many, many times.  But be warned; even if I don't say it outright, I'm going to imply the hell out of it.

Lots of people, including myself, have gone out of their way to point out that some first overall picks have gone on to less than outstanding pro careers.  The name Michael Olowokandi is enough for most Clipper fans, be let's not forget Kwame Brown and Pervis Ellison and Joe Smith.  But with all due respect to those guys, Blake Griffin is different.

There are two things you can do to really get yourself noticed in the NBA draft.  You can be an impossibly gifted physical specimen, such that NBA scouts fall in love with your potential.  Olowokandi (who was ridiculously long) and Brown (still an impressive combination of size and athleticism) certainly fall into this category, and the high lottery is strewn with these kinds of players - a guy like Stromile Swift was drafted third overall on athleticism alone.  Or you can be extremely accomplished and successful at the highest levels of non-professional basketball.  While it's rare that a player would be drafted first overall based on their college numbers alone, players like Danny Ferry and Christian Laettner managed to make it into the top three despite the fact that most everyone knew they weren't really athletic enough to be superstars in the NBA and there are myriad other lottery picks who were great college players but terrible pros, for what turned out to be obvious reasons in hindsight.

But a prototypical NBA physical specimen AND incredibly accomplished on the court?  That's a much smaller subset.  Here are some statistics from the final college season for a well known NBA player :  14.7 rebounds per game and 20.8 points per game on 60.8% shooting.  Who put up such gaudy college numbers?  Tim Duncan, the college player of the year and first overall pick in the draft in 1997.  Shaquille O'Neal put up 14 rebounds and 24.1 points on 61.5% shooting his final season at LSU before becoming the first overall pick.  Frankly, these are the only college seasons I have found that can compare with Blake Griffin's own college player of the year campaign - 14.4 rebounds, 22.7 points, and an other worldly 65.4% shooting. Blake Griffin had 30 double doubles last season at Oklahoma, second in the NCAA all time to another first overall pick, David Robinson.

I've heard Kenyon Martin cited as a possible worst case for Griffin.  You can see why people would make the comparison - Martin was college player of the year, he was the first overall pick, he was strong and very athletic for his size.  But Martin's numbers at Cincy (18.9 and 9.7 as a senior) simply don't hold a candle to Griffin's stats.  (And by the way, KMart is hardly a slouch as a pro, and that's after a series of injuries - he made an all star game before microfracture surgery.)

There have been myriad stories in the national press before and after the draft about how the Clippers will somehow cause Griffin to fail.  The 'logic' of these articles, if you can call it that, is that the Clippers other first overall picks were somehow wanting.  But frankly, Blake Griffin is not Michael Olowokandi.  As for Danny Manning, the guy tore his ACL after 26 NBA games, and STILL went on to lead the Clippers to back-to-back playoff appearances AND make two all star teams.  So if the reasoning here is that Griffin will surely get injured because Manning got injured, and after all, the Clippers are cursed, then I'd suggest that the sports writers who subscribe to that theory should probably be writing horoscopes instead.  I mean, no one predicts that Celtics picks will die because of Len Bias, do they?

On the other end of the spectrum, Kevin Hench of is predicting that Griffin will turn the Clippers into a contender, and he's got some data to back it up.  His reasoning is as follows:

Since the draft lottery was introduced in 1985 there have been seven drafts where there was no doubt, no debate, no dissent about who should be the No. 1 pick. Those picks were Patrick Ewing ('85), David Robinson ('87), Danny Manning ('88), Shaquille O'Neal ('92), Duncan ('97), Yao ('02) and LeBron James ('03).

Blake Griffin goes into that category, with arguably as big a gap between him and No. 2 as anyone.

So in drafts where there was a clear-cut, lock No. 1, how did those teams make out?

Well, they all got better. A lot better. Fast.

Hench is arguing that a consensus number one picks ALWAY become stars and ALWAYS help their team.  Of course, there's a first time for everything, but I like his use of historical data.  Now, there are two parts to the consensus equation - one is the player being picked, and one is everyone else in the draft.  It's possible that a player could be consensus simply by virtue of the rest of the draft being so weak.  And if ever that was the case, this year might be it - but it's not.  Griffin is definitely a worthy first overall pick based on his college career and his physical ability - this is no first overall by default situation.

Looking at Hench's list of consensus picks since 85 (Ewing, Robinson, Manning, Shaq, Duncan, Yao, LeBron) it's an impressive group.  All of them except Manning were first team All Pro in their careers, and four of them have won an MVP award.  So based on the precedent it would seem that there's a good chance that Griffin is going to have a stellar career, assuming he can avoid injury. 

But you don't even have to limit the conversation to consensus picks.  The truth of the matter is, the majority of number one overall picks turn into great pros.  For the first 20 drafts of the lottery era, from Patrick Ewiing in 1985 to Dwight Howard in 2004, 16 of them made an All Star team.  That's 80%, even without taking into consideration Griffin's singularity in this draft.  You know why people always talk about Olowokandi and Kwame and Joe Smith and Pervis Ellison?  Because they're so bloody unusual.  First overall picks are supposed to be great, and about 80% of the time they are. (Someone's going to point out that none of the first overalls since Howard have made an all star team, and that is certainly true - but that's at least partially due to the fact that they haven't been in the league very long.  Still, I'll admit that Bargnani, and possibly Bogut, have a chance to join the list of disappointments taken first.)

The Clippers introduced Blake Griffin at a press conference today.  The team is beginning to practice for summer league, which is only two weeks away.  There's alot of excitement surrounding the team.  And well there should be.  History says that Blake Griffin is going to be great.