Blake Griffin shows promise in debut

LOS ANGELES -- It's too early, and he's too young. But the sooner the Clippers become Blake Griffin's team, the sooner they'll stop being the most over-punched line in the NBA.

It took about five minutes of watching Griffin energize the Clippers' perpetually disappointed fans in his NBA debut at Staples Center on Wednesday night against the Portland Trail Blazers to come to that conclusion.

It took another five minutes of watching the air rush out of the building when Griffin came out for a break with two fouls late in the first quarter to underscore that thought beyond any reasonable doubt.

Chris Kaman is still an All-Star, Eric Gordon is still a world champion, Baron Davis is still the point guard. Blake Griffin is the franchise.

His debut in the Clippers' 98-88 loss to the Blazers was like watching a colony of angry army ants shoot out of their nest and swarm a basketball court.

He managed to be both electric and radioactive.

And at the end of the night, he wasn't merely relieved to have finally made his long-awaited debut after sitting out last season with a knee injury, he was mad to be looking at the short side of the box score and critical of his performance at the defensive end.

"I'll never be OK with losing," Griffin said after his 20-point, 14-rebound effort. "I'll deal with it better, but you can never accept losing because that's when you go downhill."

For a team that's gone 48-116 (.293) the past two seasons, you couldn't have scripted a better postgame quote.

Now comes the hard part: waiting.

It's too early and he's too young.

"You gotta give this guy some time now," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said, reminding himself as much as the assembled media in the interview room.

"He's a young kid, he's got a lot to learn. He's going to fill the stat sheets up but he has different levels to get at. Let's just be patient and give him some time. That's what we have to do. Everyone wants to, especially with young guys, to compare them, but let's let Blake Griffin be Blake Griffin."

Del Negro has done this before. In Chicago he was charged with shepherding Derrick Rose, the 2008 draft class' No. 1 pick, through his rookie season.

Every instinct in him wanted to hand the ball to Rose, let him go for 48 minutes a game and hoist the entire franchise onto his 20-year-old shoulders.

Instead he kept Rose's minutes in the mid-30s, told Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon to lead the team, and let Rose feel his way through the league at his own pace.

That's the plan with Griffin as well. And it will work out well if Davis and Kaman play like veteran, former All-Stars.

But on nights like Wednesday, when Kaman and Davis combined to shoot 7-for-29 from the field and score just 16 points, patience will be the hardest virtue for both Del Negro and Griffin to come by.

Late in the fourth quarter, after Kaman missed four straight shots and the Blazers turned an 80-80 tie into an 89-80 lead, Griffin raised his arms plaintively to no one in particular. There was no referee in sight and he did not appear to be fouled. He was, simply, frustrated.

It wasn't personal and it wasn't unprofessional.

It was passionate.

"I'm in constant communication with both of them [Kaman and Davis] because they've been in this game a long time and they know what to do," Griffin said. "The more I can talk to them, the more I can find out from them, can only help me.

"Like if Coach calls a play, I'm going to say to them, 'Hey, I'm going to do this and then I'm going to do this.' Right now that's important but later on in the year we'll be able to just go."

The question is, how much later on?

Right now, it's too early and he's too young.

Griffin seems to know that as well as anyone. His NBA identity is still taking shape.

"What's his NBA game right now?" Del Negro said. "Well, we're going to find out.

"He's a great athlete who plays basketball. Now we have to make him a great basketball player who is an athlete."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.