August 20, 2022

TUALATIN — If the Portland Trail Blazers retained the No. 7 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, one player who might be tough to pass up would be Duke small forward AJ Griffin.

Griffin practiced for the Blazers on Thursday at the team’s practice facility and could then be seen receiving one-on-one instruction from Blazers star Damian Lillard.

Griffin, projected in most fictional drafts to be selected anywhere from No. 7 to No. 12, is just 18 years old. However, he’s built like a veteran NBA player at 6-foot-6 and 222 pounds.

He’s a determined defender who said Thursday that critics who doubt his ability to defend well at the NBA level right now only motivate him to work harder.

“I just want to prove everyone wrong,” he said. “When they say you can’t do something, that motivates you more to go show them you can do something.”

During defensive drills Thursday, Griffin said he talked to himself, muttering, “You can’t play defense. You cannot play defense.

“It makes me more excited,” Griffin said.

That should be music to the ears of Blazers coach Chauncey Billups, who is looking for defensive-minded players to round out the roster.

Moreover, Griffin can already shoot at a high level. He made 44.7% of his three-point attempts as a rookie while helping the Blue Devils win the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title and reach the Final Four. But Griffin, who has averaged 10.4 points in 24 minutes per game, remains raw in the areas of creating his own shot and setting up teammates.

“I think once I slow down the game and learn the offense at that level and feel comfortable with it, the sky’s the limit,” Griffin said.

From a basketball intelligence standpoint, Griffin has studied the game since childhood. His father, Adrian Griffin, played nine years in the NBA (1999-2008), notably with Dallas and Chicago. He is now an assistant coach in Toronto.

“I think I lean on him a lot,” AJ Griffin said.

That upbringing, AJ Griffin said, helped prepare him for this moment. But he realizes he still has to get to work.

“You benefit from wisdom and knowledge, but you still have to learn how to do it for yourself,” he said.

Griffin has all the tools the Blazers could want from a prospect at No. 7. But given his youth, Griffin will likely need a few years to become a full NBA player.

His inexperience, further compounded by an ankle injury that caused him to miss his senior season at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, New York, will likely prevent Griffin from being more than a rotational player in his first two seasons. .

The same question marks surround the previous three first-round candidates the Blazers have brought in for practices. 19-year-old Australian and G League Ignite guard/forward Dyson Daniels trained for Portland last week. Arizona guard Bennedict Mathurin, 19, practiced Sunday. Memphis center/forward Jalen Duren, 18, practiced on Monday.

Such youthfulness isn’t exactly what the Blazers are looking for as they try to revamp the roster around Lillard, who turns 32 on July 15. help the team right away. This is often easier said than done.

If the Blazers were left with the choice, then the hope would be that they land a player who could at least provide some quality minutes now and become a star down the road.

Griffin could be that guy.

Adding an NBA-sized wing, defensive desire and three-point shooting certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Blazers. But in many ways, he’s a lot like what the Blazers already have in 2019 first-round selection 6-5 Nassir Little.

Last year, Little transformed into a capable defender who demonstrated improved shooting. He believes he will be part of the squad’s rotation next season, if not the small forward’s starter.

For that reason alone, perhaps Mathurin, an already polished all-around scorer, or Duren, who could provide instant rim protection, would make more sense for the Blazers than Griffin.

Either way, it’s clear that the Blazers had enough storylines in Griffin to solve it, adding him to a wide array of prospects that offer different strengths for the Blazers to choose from.

— Aaron Fentress | [email protected] | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).

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