The NBA rookie “wall” is a well-established obstacle to the development of new players, something most of them hit through fatigue, injury, overuse or even underuse at some point in their rookie season.
AJ Griffin, the Atlanta Hawks’ 19-year-old wing, hit his mark early — even before he could see action in the Las Vegas Summer League. And it was of his own making.
Griffin showed up so eager, so determined to prove the Hawks right about their pick (16th overall) that he overdid it.
“A day or two after the draft, he was the first one to show up in the building,” Atlanta coach Nate McMillan said Monday in Chicago. “He started his conditioning and ended up running himself into the ground just to prepare for Summer League. But that’s what he does. He works on his game, he spends time in the gym.”
Griffin said, “Right after I got out of college I got hurt and before college I got hurt.”
At Duke in 2021, arriving as a five-star prospect, Griffin suffered a knee injury before the college season even began. He recovered nicely, playing in 39 games and hitting nearly 45% of his 3-pointers while helping the Blue Devils to the Final Four with fellow forward Paolo Banchero.
Getting injured again (foot) while working out and missing Vegas suggested a long, low-profile season heading to the G League’s College Park Skyhawks. But the Hawks’ injuries and personnel considerations have kept him around. He has made 44 appearances, averaging 21 minutes and starting 10 times, contributing 9.8 points per game. game while hitting 40% of his 3-pointers.
The lanky 6-foot-6 teenager has logged time at three positions. And he grabbed a little spotlight early by hitting buzzer-beaters to beat Toronto in a game in November and Chicago 11 games later. The last rookie to have multiple wins in the same season? Bulls’ Toni Kukoc in 1993-94.
“Offensively, he’s been pretty consistent with what he brings to the floor,” McMillan said. “The defensive end is where he really works and tries to grab guard (wings and forwards).
“He’s been a pleasure to train – whatever you tell him, he does it. He asks questions that you have to do. He has been nothing but a professional since he stepped into our facility.”
That way, McMillan said, it’s clear that Griffin has NBA pedigree — his father Adrian played nine seasons from 1999-2008 after going undrafted out of Seton Hall and has been an assistant coach with five franchises since.
One of those teams was the Bulls under Tom Thibodeau from 2010 to 2015. So with the younger Griffin’s visit to the United Center, some memories from his high school years were stirred.
“I used to go to the family room all the time and shoot the mini hoop,” AJ Griffin recalled Monday. “It was déjà vu coming in – it felt good to be back here tonight.
“I’ve always had that mindset of wanting to get to the NBA. It comes with the daily sacrifice of wanting to get better. No matter how small or how big or how young, if you set your mind to something, you can do it.”
Here are this week’s rankings, including Griffin at No. 10, on the Kia Rookie Ladder:
Top 5 this week on the 2022-23 Kia Rookie Ladder:
(All statistics up to and including Tuesday 24 January)
1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
Season statistics: 20.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.8 apg
Since last rise: 16.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.7 apg
Last ladder: 1
Draft pick: No. 1 overall
The Celtics said a not-so-happy goodbye to the Orlando Magic in general and Banchero in particular on Monday after dropping the season series 1-3. Banchero was a terror in those four games, averaging 24.3 points and shooting 14-of-25 from deep (56%) compared to 40-of-144 (27.8%) against everyone else. It was probably no coincidence that Boston’s injury report the next morning included “Al Horford, lower back stiffness, OUT.”
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) 21 January 2023
2. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers
Season statistics: 17.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.4 apg
Since last rise: 20.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 0.8 apg
Last ladder: 2
Draft pick: No. 6 overall
Mathurin was at his best in his immediate offense against Chicago on Monday to help Indiana snap its seven game streak. He scored 15 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter and posted a plus-13 as the Pacers completed a comeback from 21 points down. His aggressiveness has given him double-digit trips to the line in six of his past 13 games and 12 overall.
Bennedict Mathurin keeps getting better.📈 pic.twitter.com/y4K1brm3yo
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) 25 January 2023
3. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz
Season statistics: 7.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 0.7 apg
Since last rise: 9.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last ladder: 5
Draft pick: No. 22 overall
There’s a blogger in Utah who made a case this week that Kessler should be the ROY favorite based on a number of stats. It would help if his minutes could increase and he took his production (13.6 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.4 blocks per 36) with him. Only five of the past 31 ROY winners averaged a double-double. Then again, only three of those 31 averaged 13 points or less.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) 21 January 2023
4. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Season statistics: 11.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.9 apg
Since last rise: 9.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last ladder: 3
Draft pick: No. 12 overall
All-around helpfulness characterizes Williams’ game. The Thunder are 12-9 since moving into the starting lineup to stay on Dec. 12. His 44 dunks rank him second among rookies behind Utah’s Kessler. And he’s locked into a pretty good role model, wearing Kobe Bryant’s sneakers and number (8) and trying to emulate the “Mamba mentality.”
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) 23 January 2023
5. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings
Season statistics: 12.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 0.9 apg
Since last rise: 18.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 0.5 apg
Last ladder: 6
Draft pick: No. 4 overall
Murray’s confidence has remained intact through the ups and downs of his NBA intro season. He just posted a 60-50-100 shooting week and is at 42.1% from the arc on his 5.9 3FGA. A source of reassurance: Teammate and fellow Iowan Harrison Barnes, veteran mentoring possible replacement.
Keegan Murray now holds the single-season franchise record for most games with five or more 3s by a rookie, passing Jason Williams (5, 1998-99). pic.twitter.com/aPX2loXNk8
— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) 24 January 2023
The next 5:
6. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons
Season statistics: 15.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.4 apg
Since last rise: 14.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 7.5 apg
Last ladder: 4
Draft pick: No. 5 overall
Force feeding at PG in Cunningham’s absence = inconsistency.
7. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons
Season statistics: 8.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last rise: 17.0 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last ladder: 8
Draft pick: No. 13 overall
Big in France after his 23-15 night in Paris.
8. Jabari Smith, Jr., Houston Rockets
Season statistics: 12.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last rise: 8.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last ladder: 7
Draft pick: No. 3 overall
Lowest place yet for low impact on low level rockets.
9. Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio Spurs
Season statistics: 9.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.4 apg
Since last rise: 17.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last ladder: 10
Draft pick: No. 9 overall
Averaged 11.9p, 5.9r and 74.5% FT since switching to a hand at the line.
10. AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks
Season statistics: 9.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last rise: 9.3 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last ladder: 11
Draft pick: No. 16 overall
Wing is shooting 60.3 overall, 52.9% from deep in 2023.
11. Tari Eason, Houston Rockets
Season statistics: 8.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 0.9 apg
Since last rise: 10.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.7 apg
Last Ladder: N/A
Draft pick: No. 17 overall
Rockets 6-6 when he has 2+ steals, 5-30 otherwise.
12. Mark Williams, Charlotte Hornets
Season statistics: 7.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 0.3 apg
Since last rise: 12.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.0 apg
Last Ladder: N/A
Draft pick: No. 15 overall
His 17p, 6r, 5 block line in 19 min. off bench at HOU serves this step.
Steve Aschburner has been writing about the NBA since 1980. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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