What are realistic expectations for Blake Griffin as a rookie?
When Blake Griffin was selected 33rd overall in a recent ESPN expert mock draft, it elicited electronic guffaws and jeers from the collection of fantasy hoops scholars. There are injury concerns. He hasn't played hoops in a year. He's no longer the centerpiece of his team's offense, like when he averaged 22.7 points, 14.4 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per game while shooting 65.4 percent from the floor in 2008-09 for the Oklahoma Sooners. His ESPN fantasy projections put him at 14.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 0.9 blocks, and Brian McKitish ranked him 28th among power forwards, sandwiched between LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap. The fourth-round selection was viewed as an unquestioned reach.
Then Griffin started making serious noise on the court in the preseason and so did the witnesses to his superb combination of skill and athleticism. He averaged nearly 17 points and 10 boards while shooting 74.1 percent from the floor in just 23 minutes per game in his first three preseason contests while being lauded by coaches and players across the league for looking like an NBA-ready Rookie of the Year candidate and future perennial All-Star. Selecting him in the fourth round of fantasy drafts is still a reach, but how much of one? What can we expect from him this season? Let's examine the factors.
Injury risk: Griffin reports no pain in the knee that required surgery after a stress fracture sidelined him for the entire 2009-10 season, and he currently doesn't appear to be favoring it whatsoever. He suffered some minor injuries in college, including a sprained MCL in his left knee and some torn cartilage in his right knee that required arthroscopic surgery, although he never missed significant time and bounced back quickly. He was dedicated to his rehab assignment, as many have said he looks more explosive than he ever has. Right now, the knee's not an issue, and the biggest impact it will have upon his fantasy value is whether or not new head coach Vinny Del Negro will limit his minutes.
Situation: He's not at the level he'd be at after playing a full season, but he is a better player than he was coming out of college. He kows the travel and the practice schedule, and has a season of "mental reps" under his belt. And his prospects for playing time have actually improved since last season, with Marcus Camby out of the picture. Ryan Gomes and Craig Smith are both undersized, and will battle each other for minutes more than steal from Griffin's playing time. DeAndre Jordan should be Kaman's primary backup, and if the injury-prone Kaman goes down with an injury, Griffin will see even more minutes. He should end up in the 33-35 minutes-per-game range if everything goes right, so the opportunity to play isn't an issue.
However, Griffin won't be his team's primary scoring and rebounding option as he was in college, where he didn't play with any other NBA-caliber players and was a man among boys. Kaman will grab many of the boards he would've snagged previously, and Kaman, Baron Davis and Eric Gordon are key cogs to the offense, so his touches will diminish as others demand the rock. Quite simply, this isn't his team. Yet.
Ability: The scoring and rebounding will still be there, and even though not at the level they were in college, 18 and 9 isn't out of the question, and he should be a lock for 17 and 8. If he were able to average more than a steal and a block per game this season as he did his final year in college, Griffin would be a fantasy darling, but that will be a difficult task, as he won't be able to rely upon athleticism alone to dominate opponents. His quick hands should translate into solid steals, and leaping ability will produce some highlight-style blocks, but he won't be a consistent shot-blocking presence. I see him around 0.7 per game in both categories, which is above average for a power forward in steals, but below average in blocks. His free throw shooting is awful, and that coupled with his lack of blocks are what really limit Griffin's fantasy value and make the fourth-round mock draft selection a reach. His highest-value category will be field goal percentage, and even though he won't shoot better than 60 percent from the floor, 55 percent with points in the upper teens will make him one of the better field goal percentage contributors in the league. I look for Griffin to settle at around 18 points, 8.5 boards, and 0.7 steals and blocks while shooting 55 percent from the floor and 60 from the stripe. Not fourth-round material, but he'll exceed his projections and finish better than the 28th-ranked power forward.
Josh Whitling is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.