Kia Rookie Ladder: AJ Griffin finding his rhythm in Atlanta

AJ Griffin talks with his father Adrian Griffin, an assistant coach for the Raptors, prior to a game.

The NBA rookie “wall” is a well-established impediment to new players’ development, something most of them hit through fatigue, injury, over-use or even under-use at some point in their rookie seasons.

AJ Griffin, the Atlanta Hawks’ 19-year-old wing, hit his early – even before he could see action in the Las Vegas Summer League. And it was of his own making.

Griffin showed up so eager, so determined to prove the Hawks right in their selection (16th overall), that he overdid it.

“A day or two after the Draft, he was the first to show up in the building,” Atlanta coach Nate McMillan said Monday in Chicago. “He started his conditioning and eventually kind of ran himself into the ground just preparing for Summer League. But that’s what he does. He works on his game, he puts in the time in the gym.”

Said Griffin: “Just coming out of college I got hurt and before college, I got hurt.”

At Duke in 2021, arriving as a five-star prospect, Griffin suffered a knee injury before the college season even began. He recovered nicely, playing in 39 games and hitting nearly 45% of his 3-pointers while helping the Blue Devils to the Final Four with fellow Ladder mate Paolo Banchero.

Getting hurt again (foot) while working out and missing Vegas suggested a long low-profile season shuttling to the G League College Park Skyhawks. But the Hawks’ injury and personnel considerations have kept him around. He has made 44 appearances, averaged 21 minutes and started 10 times, contributing 9.8 points per game while hitting 40% of his 3-pointers.

The slender 6-foot-6 teen has logged time at three positions. And he grabbed some spotlight early by hitting buzzer-beaters to beat Toronto in a November game and Chicago 11 games later. The last rookie to have multiple game-winners in the same season? The Bulls’ Toni Kukoc in 1993-94.

AJ Griffin’s game-winning layup secured an overtime win over the Raptors.

“Offensively he’s been pretty consistent with what he brings to the floor,” McMillan said. “The defensive end is where he’s really working and trying to grasp guarding [wings and forwards].

“He’s been a joy to coach – whatever you tell him, he does. He asks questions, which you need to do. He’s been nothing but a pro since he stepped into our facility.”

In that way, McMillan said, it’s clear Griffin has NBA lineage – his father Adrian played nine seasons from 1999-2008 after going undrafted out of Seton Hall and has been an assistant coach with five franchises ever since.

One of those teams was the Bulls, under Tom Thibodeau from 2010 to 2015. So with the younger Griffin’s visit to the United Center, some memories from his grade school years were stirred.

“I used to go to the family room all the time and shoot on the mini-hoop,” AJ Griffin recalled Monday. “It was déjà vu coming in – it felt good to be back here tonight.

“I always had that mindset of wanting to make the NBA. It comes with the everyday sacrifice of wanting to get better. No matter how small or how big or how young, if you set your mind on anything you can do it.”

Here are this week’s rankings, including Griffin at No. 10, on the Kia Rookie Ladder:


The Top 5 this week on the 2022-23 Kia Rookie Ladder:

(All stats through Tuesday, Jan. 24)

1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 20.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 16.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.7 apg
Last Ladder: 1
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

The Celtics bid a not-so-fond farewell to the Orlando Magic in general and Banchero, in particular, Monday after losing the season series, 1-3. Banchero was a terror in the four games, averaging 24.3 points and shooting 14-of-25 from deep (56%) compared to 40-of-144 (27.8%) against everyone else. It likely was no coincidence that Boston’s injury report the next morning included “Al Horford, lower back stiffness, OUT.”


2. Benedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 17.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 20.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 0.8 apg
Last Ladder: 2
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

Mathurin was at his instant-offense best against Chicago Monday to help Indiana snap its seven-game skid. He scored 15 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, posting a plus-13 as the Pacers completed a comeback from 21 points down. His aggressiveness has earned him double-digit trips to the line in six of his past 13 games and 12 overall.


3. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 7.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 0.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder: 5
Draft pick: No. 22 overall

There’s a blogger in Utah who made a case this week that Kessler should be the ROY favorite based on an array of stats. It would help if his minutes could rise and he took his production (13.6 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.4 blocks per 36) with them. Only five of the past 31 ROY winners averaged a double-double. Then again, only three of those 31 averaged 13 points or less.


4. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 11.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder: 3
Draft pick: No. 12 overall

All-around helpfulness characterizes Williams’ game. The Thunder is 12-9 since he moved into the starting lineup to stay on Dec. 12. His 44 dunks rank him second among rookies behind Utah’s Kessler. And he’s latched onto a pretty good role model, wearing Kobe Bryant’s sneakers and number (8) and trying to emulate the “Mamba mentality.”


5. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 12.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 0.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 18.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 0.5 apg
Last Ladder: 6
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Murray’s confidence has remained intact through the ups and downs of his NBA intro season. He just posted a 60-50-100 shooting week and is at 42.1% from the arc on his 5.9 3FGA. One source of reassurance: Teammate and fellow Iowan Harrison Barnes, veteran mentoring possible replacement.


The Next 5:

6. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 15.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 7.5 apg
Last Ladder: 4
Draft pick: No. 5 overall

Force-feeding at PG in Cunningham’s absence = inconsistency.

7. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 8.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.0 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder: 8
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Big in France after his 23-15 night in Paris.

8. Jabari Smith, Jr., Houston Rockets

Season stats: 12.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder: 7
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Lowest spot yet for low impact on low-level Rockets.

9. Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio Spurs

Season stats: 9.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder: 10
Draft pick: No. 9 pick overall

Averaging 11.9p, 5.9r and 74.5% FT since switching to one hand at the line.

10. AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks

Season stats: 9.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.3 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: 11
Draft pick: No. 16 overall

Wing is shooting 60.3 overall, 52.9% from deep in 2023.

11. Tari Eason, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 8.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 0.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.7 apg
Last Ladder: N/A
Draft pick: No. 17 pick overall

Rockets 6-6 when he has 2+ steals, 5-30 otherwise.

12. Mark Williams, Charlotte Hornets

Season stats: 7.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 0.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.0 apg
Last Ladder: N/A
Draft pick: No. 15 overall

His 17p, 6r, 5 blocks line in 19 min. off the bench at HOU earns this rung.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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