Know this: Kevin Pelton is much, much smarter than me. He has an awesome eye for the game and dissects it with a surgeon’s touch. I know that he knows more than me, no doubt. But he recently wrote a piece critiquing Blake Griffin following the Elite Eight game against North Carolina and highlighted some of what he considered major faults. As someone that’s watched Blake play every game in his two-year college career and actually multiple games in high school, I feel like I should maybe comment a bit on Pelton’s criticisms of Blake.
Pelton’s major critiques come on the defensive end but he also talks about Griffin’s screen setting.
The disappointing aspect of Griffin’s offensive game was his screen-setting. I tracked him participating in five high pick-and-rolls and nine side pick-and-rolls, but I’m not certain he made contact on his screens on any of them. In fairness to Griffin, part of this may be the Sooners’ desire to keep their meal ticket away from foul trouble given the inconsistent way screens are officiated. Still, these plays were relatively ineffective, rarely freeing the guard while only occasionally giving Griffin good position on his roll to the basket.
Pelton acknowledges the foul trouble issue with an “in fairness” line. And that’s it. That’s precisely why Blake doesn’t try and set bone-crushing screens every possession. He’s trying to avoid tick-tack fouls. I mean, you understand that’s the reason why with an “in fairness” but then you go ahead and make the point anyway? That’s the reason for it, plain and simple. Also, I realize when a guy is going to be the clear-cut No. 1 pick, people are going to look for things he doesn’t do well, because well, that’s what people do, but screen setting? Knocking on a guy because he didn’t set textbook screens? If that’s one of the major criticisms of Blake Griffin’s game, then I’d say he has a pretty complete game already.
While Griffin looks like a can’t-miss prospect on offense, his ability to contribute defensively at the NBA level is a much bigger question mark. Nothing I saw in this matchup eased those concerns. If I had to use one word to describe Griffin’s defense, it would be “inactive.” His older brother Taylor got the assignment of defending Hansbrough, leaving Griffin to work against Deon Thompson and Ed Davis. Griffin did a decent job individually against these players, both secondary options in the North Carolina offense.
Where questions really start to emerge is watching Griffin’s help defense–as in, “where is it?” I tracked Griffin as forcing just one miss in 38 minutes as a help defender, while allowing 3.5 scores in these situations (the half coming on a play where he and his brother were both defending). The assertiveness that is a staple of Griffin’s game on offense is lacking at the defensive end. I’d describe him as playing “halfway defense”–halfway between stepping up and taking on a driving player and sticking with his own man. The result, for a Tar Heels squad that is effective shooting off the dribble, was relatively easy pull-up looks.
Griffin averaged 1.2 blocks per game this season, but given his size and athleticism he should have been doing much more. Again, the foul trouble issue is a counterpoint, but only to an extent. Griffin could surely do a better job of contesting shots without putting himself in danger of fouling. His instincts seem to be lacking. Griffin also appears to be especially concerned with maintaining rebounding position, which works to the benefit of his boardwork but to the detriment of his help defense.
OK, here’s the meat and potatoes of the argument. Lots of people have talked about Blake’s defense or lack thereof. It’s true, Blake does quite a bit of standing around on the defense end. He plays straight up, doesn’t really contest a lot of shots and rarely pulls off to help on a penetrating guard. Here’s why: No player in the country was more important to his team than Blake Griffin. He was everything OU had. Look at the two games he missed. The Sooners struggled in every way. Without him, they were a borderline top 25 team. Nothing was more important to OU’s success than for Blake Griffin to be on the floor.
And other than an injury, what’s the one thing that can put someone on the bench? Foul trouble. Jeff Capel preached to Blake, “Stay away from potential fouls. Better to give up two points in the first half than to pick up your second foul early.” It was just the reality of it. Blake was basically taught, Go straight up and concede the bucket if they get in on you. Don’t come help too much. If you’ve got a clean swipe at a shot, take it. But don’t barrel into anyone. Give up the two and stay on the court.
You watch Blake play defense in the post and he stands with his arms spread wide and just moves his feet to keep his man in front of him. It’s just kind of “stand there” defense. The majority of college post players couldn’t score on Blake regardless because he’s so big and strong. So his “stand there” defense worked most times. Maybe one could say he’s developed bad habits. I understand that. But his post defense was always solid. He rarely got scored on. I do agree that sometimes it seemed like Blake was hesitant to challenge because he wanted to be in rebounding position. But again, when you’re the primary rebounder, that’s a risk you take.
As for help defense, he just doesn’t peel off much for the simple reason that he was strictly told not to. Pelton acknowledges the foul trouble issue as a qualifier but that’s the reality. You’re going to tell me a guy as physically gifted as Blake Griffin, who is driven to spend an entire summer in San Francisco torturing his body to get better, who flies over scorer’s tables and works harder than any player in the country, isn’t going to work on the defensive end of the floor? It was incredibly apparent to anyone who watched him all year that he was just playing his role. He played as hard as anybody, but then defensively he toned it down for the simple reason of foul worries. It may seem like something you can pass off, but that was his role.
I remember multiple games where Blake became progressively aggressive as the game went on. I remember times where he’d have two fouls with under six minutes left in a tight game and he was much more aggressive helping and trying to block shots. He wasn’t worried about foul trouble anymore so he was able to unleash a little and go after the ball. But if he had two early fouls in the second half, he’s playing it smart with his arms straight up and he’s not going after every shot.
This season, Blake fouled out of just one game – OU’s first loss of the season against Arkansas. He only had five games where he got called for at least four fouls. For a big man, that’s incredible (for perspective Taj Gibson who was third in the nation in shot blocking fouled out of six games and had 10 games of at least four fouls). That simply says: He was doing everything to stay away from fouling. Blake was interested in what was best for his team and not what kind of gaudy stats he put up. And what was best for OU was for him to be on the court.
Put Blake on a team with two other players that can carry the load offensively. Tell him that he’s in there to play physical defense, rebound the ball, set screens and that he can play wild without the fear of killing the team if he picks up an early foul. And he’ll get nasty with people. He’ll challenge every shot, he’ll peel off and help and he’ll work his tail off defensively. It’s what he does. Give him the luxury of six fouls and a clear mind free of foul worries and he’ll play. Trust me. He’s far too competitive to just let something like that be such a chink in his armor.
Like I said, people are scouring tapes of Blake trying to find reasons to question him. That’s fair. Kevin Pelton is a brilliant basketball mind and I can understand how watching a tournament game or two of Blake you could get the impression that his defense left something to be desired. But those were the most important games of the year for OU and if the Sooners were going to have any chance, big No. 23 was going to have to be on the floor. And if that was at the expense of some swat out of bounds or a well-executed screen and roll, I think Jeff Capel was willing to sacrifice.
There’s definitely things he needs to get better at. Heck, he’s a 20-year-old college kid. I would hope his game isn’t refined and perfected already. As Pelton says, “To achieve the greatness predicted for him, Griffin will have to develop the rest of his game.” Absofruitly. He better have room to grow. But if you’re going to question Blake based on the fact that his screens are poor and his help defense isn’t there, I think you’re reaching. Because those are two things he can do well. He was just told not to.