As far back as anyone can remember, Blake Griffin has seen the world through a set of crosshairs. Out-of-reach fire bells, high fences or anything that big brother Taylor could do -- it all represented something to be slapped, hurdled or topped. "I'd ask my parents, 'Do you think I can do that?' " Griffin recalls. "If they said, 'Yeah,' then I wouldn't do it. It had to be something someone thought I couldn't do."
Those somethings and someones are in ever shorter supply. There were natural concerns after Griffin, the top pick in the 2009 NBA draft, missed all of last season with a broken left kneecap, but the Clippers' would-be savior has responded emphatically. Shaquille O'Neal lists Griffin along with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James as the league's only players he'll let his son watch, while TNT's Kenny Smith calls Griffin "the future power forward of the NBA," thanks to his combination of size (6'10", 252 pounds) and agility.
The biggest criticism of the 21-year-old Griffin is that he plays too hard, making him a greater injury risk. But his human-missile approach is leaving craters across the league. While LA has been a cellar-dweller for much of the season, Griffin's highlight reel at the quarter-pole rivals what a lot of guys will do through 82 games. The symbolic changing of the power forward occurred Dec. 1, when Griffin's 31-point, 13-rebound night led the Clips to a win over Tim Duncan's Spurs for the first time since 2006. And Griffin's 44-point, 15-board effort in a loss to the Knicks on Nov. 20 included two of the season's top-rated dunks on nba.com: a soaring throwdown over 7'1" rookie Timofey Mozgov and a sick skills clinic in which Griffin scooped up a loose ball near midcourt, drove hard to the right, spun left with the ease of a point guard, then crushed it over Danilo Gallinari. "It's not how high Blake jumps, but how strong and quick he is getting up," says Neil Olshey, the Clippers VP of basketball operations. "He's going up for his second jump when most guys are still coming down from their first."
Taylor Griffin, who teamed with Blake at Oklahoma and now plays in Belgium, was watching via League Pass when his brother made Mozgov look small. "I replayed it 10 times," Taylor says. "He's not just back. He's better than ever."
Turns out, a year on the sideline wasn't such a bad thing. At home games last season, Griffin would put players like Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony or Amar'e Stoudemire in his crosshairs, taking mental notes on the adjustments they made. And now? He has set his sights on living up to being NEXT. "As I see it," Griffin says, "you guys just pointed up at something and said, 'Can you touch that?' "
Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.