A.J. Griffin is ready for NBA sophomore leap, whether Hawks trade him or not

A.J. Griffin is ready for NBA sophomore leap, whether Hawks trade him or not

The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported Tuesday morning that the Atlanta Hawks remain the foremost suitor for the Toronto Raptors’ forward Pascal Siakam, offering a package built upon De’Andre Hunter, AJ Griffin and draft capital.

Siakam is very good. He’s a two-time All-Star and All-NBA honoree who’s proven to contribute to winning at the highest level and yet to turn 30. The Hawks would absolutely be a better team with him around. However, they’d also not be the lone winner of a trade comprised of those aforementioned components. Griffin would be quite the get and is primed for a prosperous career, regardless of whether he’s donning Toronto or Atlanta red.

Last year, he averaged 8.9 points (57.7 percent true shooting), 2.1 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 19.5 minutes per night. He shot 53.6 percent on two-pointers, 39 percent beyond the arc and 89.4 percent at the charity stripe. Though he never seemed to truly crack head coach Quin Snyder’s inner circle once Snyder assumed the reins in late February — seeing a dip in playing time and production, and recording zero playoff minutes — Griffin should factor prominently into the Hawks’ interim and long-term plans. That rings even more true in the immediate future if he expands upon his encouraging first season and can solidify himself as a mainstay of the rotation.

Long-range shooting sits at the core of his intrigue. He buried 44.7 percent of his outside looks at Duke, was a highly regarded shooter throughout youth circuits and has continued ripping through the nets in the NBA. Hammering home this value is his multifaceted arsenal off the catch. Many young players and credible shooters labor through discerning reads and decisions against closeouts. The speed of the NBA requires an assimilation period. It’s why “the game slowed down” truism exists and is echoed across the league when players take leaps. Margins are smaller and more fleeting than any time before, and once-functional athletic advantages usually dissipate.

At 19 years old, Griffin is already proficient beating closeouts and coverages in a plethora of ways; how he manipulates and punishes them conveys the wisdom and experience of an accomplished veteran. Go under the pick, trail behind or recover tardily and he’ll splash in a three, comfortable spotting up and firing on the move. His footwork off of screens amplifies his fluid, one-motion release. Play over the top of screens or skirt him off the arc and he operates with a level of methodical control that lets him dictate the tempo. He frequently comes to a jump stop in the paint, though is similarly adept playing off of one foot, if needed.

The floater is his go-to weapon downhill (1.14 points per possession on runners in 2022-23, 92nd percentile), but he also wields an eclectic palette of pivots, fakes and off-balance tricks to convert inside the paint. His shot fake is quickly rivaling the league’s premier off-ball shooters and he’s unbothered by most contests, capable of altering his delivery to account for defenders’ whereabouts. Small spaces do not overwhelm him, and he punctually anticipates stunts before they encroach upon his intentions.

One of the biggest current limitations for Griffin is his lack of explosion (though I thought he looked zippier and more flexible at the end of the season). He compensates by winning on the margins with his footwork, economical routes around screens and snappy reads when the ball travels his way. Atlanta deployed him off of pindowns, dribble handoffs, slide screens and many other off-ball actions last season, and he consistently reinforced its faith in a variety of manners. He should have little trouble generating gaudy, multifaceted scoring volume as he progresses into his prime.

Griffin doesn’t have to be the focal point of a possession to spur chances either. That’s a vital part of what renders him such a dynamic, tantalizing off-ball scorer. Whether it’s lifting on the weakside when his man rotates, relocating to burn a wandering eye or subtle shifts to open up an angle to shoot or drive, he made a habit of parlaying slight pockets of space into routine scoring opportunities.

Playing alongside a premier advantage creator in Trae Young, Griffin’s scoring profile projects as a harmonic complement. Young is an on-ball dynamo who’s still trying to establish a consistent off-ball presence. Griffin is an off-ball dynamo whose skill-set elevates the offense without reorienting Young into a suboptimal role. Plenty of defenses load strong-side help to direct offense away from Young, and it’s an increasingly popular tactic on a league-wide scale, too. Granting Griffin room to rock off the catch while his star point guard occupies attention is a boon for the Hawks and can exploit this evolving defensive scheme (as long as it stays prevalent).

He and Young collaborated on some actions last season, namely slide screens, but there’s certainly more depths to explore. Griffin’s off-ball gravity and Young’s on-ball gravity stress defenses. Young’s dribble penetration is among his foremost traits. Griffin’s off-ball scoring is among his foremost traits. There’s no reason sets leveraging those talents together shouldn’t be a priority for a team that projects to rest its playoff aspirations primarily on a potent, diverse offense.

After finishing 30th in three-point rate a year ago, Atlanta could also benefit from more long-range volume to offset Young and Dejounte Murray’s penchant for deep twos (78th and 100th percentile, respectively, in midrange shots outside the paint). Griffin meets that criteria. He’s a decisive, profitable release valve from deep.

When Nate McMillan was the lead man last season, the offense often stagnated into “your turn, my turn” pick-and-roll variations between Young and Murray. Snyder’s schemes are much more egalitarian and motion-heavy. If Griffin is a prominent member of the rotation, I’m curious to what degree, if any, his second-side creation is featured. It was a point of optimism throughout his rookie campaign and could distinguish him from being pigeonholed into off-ball scoring usage.

His 1.13 PPP off the dribble ranked in the 91st percentile, per Synergy, and he yielded an effective field goal percentage of 53.1 on 227 self-created field goal attempts (3.2 points above league average), according to PBPStats. This data shouldn’t be interpreted as a case for Griffin’s primary initiator potential. Jumpers off the dribble arrive in all different contexts, just as self-created shots do. But it can be interpreted as evidence of a prime in which he’s providing reliable supplementary creation next to a top-tier offensive engine.

He utilizes his handle to navigate cramped quarters and maneuver where he intends, while his footwork, intermediate touch and sagacious cadence punctuate these scoring pursuits. The confidence and production he touted off the dribble, even on slowly developing touches, as a rookie was notable.

The key steps ahead offensively for Griffin are finding easier shots and evolving as a playmaker. Only 14 percent of his looks occurred at the rim (14th percentile) and he attempted 47 free throws all season (.088 free-throw rate). His true shooting percentage was 0.4 points below the NBA average, despite ranking in the 85th and 63rd percentiles from midrange and three-point range.

Swapping some of those floaters for daring, lucrative attempts at the rim could help, though I understand the safety net and rhythm of them. Floaters, however, are a notoriously challenging shot type to subsist on. A greater willingness to wander all the way to the cup could boost his two-point and free throw numbers for a holistic scoring efficiency spike.

According to Sports Info Solutions, his 56.1 effective field goal percentage was six points higher than expected, based on shot quality, which ranked in the 90th percentile and 36th overall among 371 eligible players. That’s both a testament to his shot-making prowess and an area to monitor regarding his shot distribution moving forward.

Elevating his scoring volume would be simplified with passing growth. He authored some flashes, but tended to slowly, if at all, process openings and struggled executing the windows he did see. As the season wore on, teams began truly recognizing his shooting talent and guarded him accordingly. Griffin just has to be someone who knows when too many eyeballs are fixated on him and can exploit that respect, in addition to some standard reads accompanying his ideal usage, a la pocket passes, interior laydowns, and empty corner lobs.

These are all attainable reads and ones he sporadically showcased in 2022-23. A foundation exists. Now, it’s about regularly considering both options when shooting and passing are available to him rather than solely passing.

Among Griffin, Onyeka Okongwu and Jalen Johnson, the Hawks roster a trio of connective young players who could help elevate the ceiling of their Young-Murray core. Griffin might be the most enticing of the bunch. He’s a gnarly good shooter and versatile, effective off-ball scorer who could become a viable ancillary creator down the line.

Atlanta might pivot to cash in on the allure of this description and maximize its present day environment. Such a possibility shouldn’t stop Griffin from actualizing this potential, though, and wherever he blossoms will be immensely happy with all he provides. His rookie year was an illuminative glimpse into what that blossoming may resemble — and it’s wicked good.

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