After two years of adversity, Duke’s AJ Griffin is healthy, focused, and ready to lead the Blue Devils to title contention.
Tuesday night marked Duke’s most complete performance of the season, a 103-62 blowout vs. South Carolina State. The Blue Devils broke 100 for the second time while making a season-high 15 threes, dishing out 23 assists, and putting 11 players into the scoring column.
This was Duke’s first appearance since the gut-wrenching 71-66 loss to Ohio State, in which the Blue Devils blew an eight-point lead with 5:19 to go and failed to score another field goal the rest of the way.
As the Duke players disassembled from the court and jogged into the locker room, freshman A.J. Griffin had a sly grin across his face. It was the type of grin a college student has after acing a final exam.
Griffin’s adversity and accolades
While Griffin was a Rivals.com 5-star recruit and owns a gold medal with Team USA, things haven’t always been particularly easy for the 6-7 wing. Griffin missed the better part of his final two years of high school with various knee and ankle injuries.
“It feels good getting back to playing again,” Griffin told Heat Check CBB. “There were a lot of ups and downs for me, but I knew if I continued to work, it would click at some point. I don’t see the injuries as a bad thing necessarily; I see them as setting me up for the future. It made me hungrier; it made me want to become a better player.”
Before the season, Griffin saw another setback just after arriving at Duke. This time, it was another knee injury — this time no structural damage — that kept him out for most of the preseason. Griffin played on opening night — against Kentucky on ESPN in Madison Square Garden — but he was playing catch-up, having to learn on the fly.
“I would say the reads on the defensive end,” Griffin said when asked about his biggest adjustment to college. “On offense, things are pretty natural for me, but the defense is sped up; you have to talk more and be in certain spots at certain times. That has been a transition for me.”
Adjusting on the fly
Griffin played 11 minutes that night in his home state of New York. In the next game, he played 10 minutes and then six minutes in the third game. Duke scheduled aggressively in November, playing eight games in a 22-day span.
This scheduling did not leave much time to prep and adjust between games. With so many game days to start the year, there was little time for watching, teaching and acclimating. So much was done on the fly by Griffin — who had not played in extended stretches for most of the past two years.
The two-week break after the Ohio State loss provided a breath of fresh air for Griffin. He watched film, put in extra work, and practiced his reads.
“It feels good being healthy; being able to string together some playing,” Griffin said. “These last two weeks have been great, getting the reps in, getting back acclimated to the practices, and getting a feel for the game again.”
Griffin came out of the break with his best outing of the season. He took four threes, made them all, and was a near-perfect 7-of-8 from the field while adding four assists and two blocks. Griffin’s 19 points against South Carolina State were both a game-high and his career-high.
“It really came from the preparation with the coaches,” Griffin said. “Everyone is continuing to push me. If I continue to work, I will continue to see the results. I have been staying for extras after practice and really going hard every time. I’ve been staying locked in.”
Griffin followed up the South Carolina State outing with an 11-point outing, going 2-of-5 from three against Appalachian State. This was Griffin’s first back-to-back double-digit scoring stretch of his young college career.
“AJ has been really coming on,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He has been getting a lot of extra work and is getting acclimated now; he didn’t play basketball for something like two years. The team has been really supportive of him.”
Griffin followed up Krzyzewski’s thoughts: “I think it was more a mindset I wanted to get better with; playing aggressive, being vocal. You can’t be over-analyzing everything. I just sat down with Coach, and he told me you got to change your mindset.”
Basketball is in his Griffin’s blood
Basketball has always been a part of Griffin’s life. His father, Adrian, is currently an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors. The elder Griffin scored 1,414 career points at Seton Hall and made two All-Big East teams. The 6-5 shooting guard went on to play nine seasons and 477 career games in the NBA.
“When I was little, I used to go to my dad’s games,” Griffin said. “I don’t remember to be honest, but my mom tells me I used to go all the time. I don’t really see my dad as an NBA coach or anything. He never made me play basketball; I saw how much fun he was having out there, so I wanted to try it out for myself, and I fell in love with the game.”
AJ’s brother and sister have also had successful basketball careers. Alan, also a 6-5 shooting guard, averaged 13.3 points for Syracuse last season, knocking down 56 threes. He is now playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the NBA G-League. Aubrey Griffin, meanwhile, is a junior at UConn. She has missed all of this season with a high ankle sprain, but the 6-1 forward averaged 6.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game as a sophomore.
“My family has always been there for me, mainly in giving me advice after every game: ‘keep going, keep playing hard, your time is coming,'” Griffin said. “I really love my big brother and big sister. All the stuff they do, I really appreciate. They push me to be better and always see the potential in me. They have helped me take things day by day. I have seen them come back from injuries, and you can’t rush it. You can’t think about the future or the past; you have to stay in the present and do whatever you can to get better.”
A dream come true
Griffin had always known where he wanted to go to school.
“Duke was one of those things I saw when I was a little kid and instantly knew I wanted to come here.”
Now he’s on campus, dressing in the Duke blue and whites and warming up to Cascada’s ‘Every Time We Touch’ as the Cameron Crazies jump and scream his name.
After the win against South Carolina State, Griffin jogged off the court with a slight grin because he knows the work he’s put in and adversity he’s faced.
Griffin knows the best is yet to come.
Header image courtesy of AJ Griffin’s personal Instagram account.