The casual fan thinks all Blake Griffin does is dunk. If you watch a Clipper game or flip through SportsCenter, chances are you’ll see a bevy of Griffin’s throwdowns. Even Griffin has played into the meme, as evident by his infamous KIA commercials. While it’s true that he’s already racked up more dunking highlights than just about anyone else at this point in his career, he’s far more skilled than his “dunker” label would suggest.
Griffin has vastly improved on defense this year, is an underrated rebounder given his somewhat pedestrian numbers, and is among the best passing big men in the game. His absurd athleticism is a major factor, but not the only one — he’s quite fundamentally sound. Watch his footwork, his ball-handling, the angles with which he attacks the rim. He’s even added a Tim Duncan-esque bank shot (he claims he’s had it since college).
Which brings us to the most overlooked part of Griffin’s game: his passing. He’s averaging a career-high 3.8 per contest (4.2 per-36), despite playing a career-low 32.6 minutes. His 19.4 assist percent ranks second among all big men (behind hybrid Josh Smith), and is ahead of passing savants Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Greg Monroe, among others. He’s had a few near triple-doubles this year, one of which he failed to register because he only had 9 rebounds.
When discussing his progress to this point, his passing is rarely mentioned. Though his ability to finish at the rim stands out, Griffin’s court vision is just as impressive.
As such, here’s a look at the different types of passes Griffin can make, and some of the offensive actions the Clippers run through him (I apologize for some of the video quality):
Kick out to strong-side shooter
Griffin’s best passing skill, by far, is finding open shooters spread throughout the floor. Here, as Steve Blake hedges down to disrupt Griffin’s post-up, Griffin calmly tosses a left-handed pass to Chris Paul at the top of the key. Not only is he able to make the pass in one coordinated motion (i.e. mid-dribble), but he also does so with his off-hand (and one-handed). A lot of big men can find an open guy, but it’s tough to make the split-second decision with an increased degree of difficulty.
Kick out to weak-side shooter
Once again, Griffin reads the defense in a nanosecond. He sees that DeAndre Jordan is back-screening Danny Green, and zips a bullet to Caron Butler in the right corner (where he shoots a deadly 55.8 percent on 3s). While his overhead pass wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as his left-hander to Paul, it’s just as effective. Most of Griffin’s assists come by way of an open weak-side shooter, although it’s usually a result of an opponent trying to double him down low, and Griffin finding the open guy in the corner.
Besides kick outs to weak side shooters, Griffin’s second-most used passing tool is finding cutters. Whether it’s Green, Jordan, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe or even Butler (above), Griffin has a slew of dynamic options. Griffin isn’t the type of passer who will necessarily create an opening for a teammate, but he will find an open guy, no matter the amount of space, in almost all scenarios. The Clippers tend to sneak a wing from the weak side whenever defenses even hint at collapsing on Griffin, and time after time, he exposes them.
Most big men would’ve forced something here. After all, Griffin was running with Paul and Willie Green against Al Horford (6’10) and Anthony Morrow (6’5), so he was clearly the best option to finish, as he usually is in transition. But Griffin had another idea: a behind-the-back gem to Green. Not only did Griffin show patience and poise, but trust as well, as he gave the seldom-used Green an opportunity to score when others might not have.
Of course, let’s not kid ourselves. What we want to see is this: Griffin leading the break and throwing a lob to running mate Jordan. The Jazz are perplexed at the sight of Griffin bringing the ball up court, and blindly lose Jordan in the process. Simple, efficient and awesome. How many 6’10 big men can replicate that play? A handful? That many? This is where Griffin’s physical abilities – speed, explosion and quickness – allow him to do things most players can’t.
Similar to the play in transition, Griffin often finds Jordan for alley oops in half-court sets. The special thing about these two is that if either gets a glimmer of the rim, they’re trying to dunk the damn thing. Even though Jordan isn’t a potent offensive force, his mere presence shifts defenses to allow for open 3s, mid-range jumpers and in general, proper secondary action.
Nikola Pekovic has no choice but to meet Griffin in the paint, leaving Jordan wide open for an easy dunk. Because of the looming threat of Butler spotting up on left wing (and within Griffin’s vision), Andrei Kirilenko is reluctant to commit to hedging down low, and his hesitation is all Griffin needs to throw the oop.
I guess I really like alley-oops. Griffin and Jordan, running a rare 4/5 pick-and-roll, confuse the Nets’ slow-footed bigs, who have no idea how to defend it. With just a sliver of space, Griffin hits Jordan in the perfect spot, and it’s an easy — and entertaining — two points. Griffin’s comfort with firing passes off the dribble is uncanny; the best passing big men usually dissect defenses by parking themselves on the block or at the elbow, but not on the move. Griffin is unique that way, and it’s a joy to watch.
This play is easy: Griffin throws a lob that Jordan finishes. It’s a bit redundant, sure, but there’s diversity in the angle Griffin takes — in this instance he’s more straight on, from just under the top of the key — and the way Jordan pins his man in front of him so he can catch the ball and lay it in. As with most of these plays, Griffin easily could have shot the ball instead of passing it, but his initial decision upon catching is to read the defense and look for his teammates.
Big-to-big down low
Along the same lines as the high-low action, Griffin exudes beautiful big-to-big action from the block with Jordan, who does a great job of sealing his man and creating a passing lane. While Jordan does most of the work, Griffin still has to execute the play, which is a testament to his foresight. He faces up, opening up the option of driving or shooting, waits for Jordan to seal, and then lofts a pass under the rim. It’s great stuff.
Pass then screen for shooter
The play is a bit difficult to see, so I’ll explain it. Basically, Green passes to Griffin at the free-throw line extended, then darts to the corner. Griffin quickly dishes back to him, while angling his body off to screen Al-Farouq Aminu, thus preventing him from closing it. It’s a smart trick, and depending on the referee’s angle and/or the degree to which Griffin moves, could be viewed as an illegal screen. Still, it allows Green to get off a high-percentage look, and he nails it.
Here’s a basic give-and-go with Paul — an effective play that we don’t see enough. It’s tough to defend because Griffin can fake the handoff and drive middle, or face up and shoot the jumper. Also, when he passes back to Paul, Griffin can roll or slip to the rim, and Paul is more than capable of finding him. Griffin often thinks one step ahead, as he sees that Paul has gotten by his defender, Raymond Felton, and is in position to score. From there, it’s in the hands of the Point God. Sometimes the simplest option is the best one.
Finding players off screens
Like the pass to Butler in the weak side corner, Griffin delivers an over-the-head pass to Crawford, who glides off a double-screen. Because he’s developed his jumper out to 18 feet, Tyler Hansborough plays up on him; if Griffin couldn’t shoot, defenses would sag off him (some still do), and his passing lanes would narrow. Another nugget: watch how Griffin passes to Crawford’s shot pocket. Crawford merely catches, squares up and shoots. A lot of times, players will misread a guys’ hands and pass too high or too low; Griffin does it perfectly.
It’s clear that Griffin is among the best passers at his position. Most people think of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony as modern day point forwards, but I think Griffin deserves just as much consideration. He’s part of a new wave of big men who can dribble up the floor and pass like guards, while also possessing the fortitude to bang inside and score in the paint. Nothing about his playing style is one-dimensional. Passing just isn’t as fun or memorable as dunking.
Stats used in this post are from NBA.com/stats.