Perhaps the best way to begin a consideration of the Rookie of the Year, from the perspective of a Clipper fan, is to remember that other people don’t think or see things the same way that we do. Out there in the real world of the NBA and its fans, John Wall seems an easy and obvious primary candidate. He was clearly the top pick, with virtually no discussion of any other player getting the nod. He’s an extraordinary talent, with a mixture of athleticism, court sense and skill that is outstanding, even in an era of amazing point guards. We should remember that to most folks he might as well be a lock.
Of course, if you follow the Clippers at all, you’re out of your mind with enthusiasm about Blake Griffin taking the court in a real NBA game. And if you still had any doubts or trepidations, they were pretty much answered when Griffin exploded in Sacramento and at Golden State last week. In our world, Griffin is the one and only Beast. And that Beast is a rarer animal than another soldier in the ongoing point guard revolution that began with Chris Paul and Deron Williams, continuing with Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook — and Tyreke Evans needs to be thrown in too. But we have to remember that a point guard who plays for the Wizards — who will get the President going to games and probably get on the White House court sooner rather than later— and brings immediate excitement and energy to an East Coast franchise that has seen its share of recent turmoil, is going to get all sorts of attention. There will be no shortage of Wall watchers.
NBA pundits, doing their jobs, might be leaning towards Wall as the favorite but they know that they at least have to keep an eye on Griffin. He can’t be forgotten. And that’s why the preseason is important, as the people who are supposed to pay attention have a Griffin box to check. You can tell by all the “is he healthy, has he fully recovered” comments that Griffin has been pretty much out of sight, out of mind for most NBA watchers. They don’t seem to really know what his injury was and what the surgery entailed. They probably don’t remember that he was originally supposed to be out for six to eight weeks, just the first part of the season, not really anything different than what Andrew Bynum or Carlos Boozer is looking at right now. Citizens of Clips Nation know some of the intricacies of Griffin’s surgery and rehab, and how it was a very different situation from Elton Brand’s torn achilles or some other catastrophic injury. A lot of the stories make it seem as if Griffin is coming back from ACL or microfracture surgery, wondering if he had lost athleticism. Following along, we knew the answer would most likely be no, but we all knew — including Griffin, most frustrated of all — that he would have to go through an excruciating wait before he would be able to play again.
On top of this, Griffin had an outstanding preseason last year. And it didn’t mean anything ultimately. So while the pundits know that they have to check in on him, expectations would presumably remain modest. Another strong preseason would be just another strong preseason, with Griffin getting no credits and no hype until he does it for real.
But then, after such a long wait, we’ve finally reached October, and training camp and some meaningless tuneup games. It shouldn’t be a big deal. But I have to say that I think we’ve already learned quite a bit, from a very small sample. And there are some clear reasons why Griffin should be the favorite, from day one, for Rookie of the Year.
We haven’t actually seen any televised games yet, and maybe it’s the competition and the preseason and maybe it’s just me, but to many Clipper fans Griffin seems to have improved from last year’s preseason effort. He’s happy simply to be out on the court against NBA players, but he seems to have a focus and energy that didn’t sound itself so clearly in last year’s scrimmages. He seems to be everywhere, putting a decisive stamp on the action, even taking over games. He has shown that he will be able to complement Chris Kaman in a variety of ways, play quite effectively with Eric Gordon, and floor general Baron Davis hasn’t made an appearance yet, which is when things should get most interesting. Of course Griffin is going to have difficulties and ineffective nights, and go through a variety of rookie ups and downs, but he has made numerous signals that he’s playing as if he’s possessed, like he was just let out of a cage.
We know Griffin quite a bit better than we did at this time last year, and we know that he’s not just an extraordinary athlete and player, but also a serious, dedicated person and a passionate young man. Through no fault of his own, he was forced to become a serious student of the NBA last season, and it seems apparent that he learned a wide variety of lessons. I like to remember that he played a great freshman season at Oklahoma, but came back for a second year to implement refinements and play at a more mature level, and he dominated college basketball. Last season, kept off the court, he got an accidental MFA in NBA Studies. If he wasn’t so passionate, serious and thoughtful, this might not mean much. But consider the previous No. 1 pick to sit out his entire first season, Doug Collins, or think about Phil Jackson’s season-long injury which put him on the bench studying Red Holzman, and it might generate ideas about the intensity with which Griffin studied the NBA last season. Collins and Jackson obviously learned a lot by not playing in the NBA, and Griffin may well have a similar advantage.
A point guard playing in the East is going to rack up assists and make plays and fill up the stat sheet and gain notoriety, but John Wall is also going to face some fearsome competition. He already had a good, sobering look at Derrick Rose. He plays in the same division as the Heat and the Magic. And all of the aforementioned PGs will be eager to take their shot at him. He’ll put up gaudy numbers in some losing efforts, and his talent will shine very brightly at times, but his team isn’t good or deep enough to be a contender, and there are enough elite players at his position that he will have his hands full on a regular basis.
By contrast, who is the last big man that might be considered a polished, mature product in the mode of Griffin, and what kind of players will he match up against night after night? Brook Lopez is a good name, but centers start a little more slowly, his team was in disarray, and his competition, Rose, had his hands on the ball from day one and made his mark very quickly. Before that you might go back to Elton Brand, who had the energy and strength of Griffin, without the polish and ballhandling skills. Griffin isn’t Tim Duncan, but Kaman’s presence reminds us that Duncan’s introduction to the league and immediate impact was greatly aided by playing alongside David Robinson. Griffin is bringing back power and size to the evolving forward position, where undersized athletes like Paul Millsap and Carl Landry are succeeding, while Lamar Odom rebounds and handles the ball all over the floor, and shooters like Nowitzki stretch defenses. If you go down the list, there aren’t a lot of guys who you’d think are eager to guard Griffin or be guarded by him, especially when their frontcourt mate has to contend with Kaman. And they will all know, soon enough, that Griffin has studied their game and their tendencies very carefully.
But hey, it’s the Clippers. The safest bet in sports has always been to turn away and just wait for something to go wrong. So we’re still getting an awful lot of “if healthy…” when Griffin is considered. He’s healthy. And he’s already shown, in a very short amount of time, that he’s worth paying very close attention to this season. We should have a somewhat better idea of what might be in store after watching him play against the Spurs down in Mexico. Soon enough he’ll be moving through his first NBA season, just a rookie. We got to see Eric Gordon make a great late charge towards RoY honors after Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo got fast starts.
This time it’s going to be a lot more fun.