Blake Griffin's evolution has been fast
Clips' rookie is starting to understand demands of stardom and maintaining humility
It's 1:45 in the afternoon and Blake Griffin should be anywhere but here. In less than 48 hours he'll be on a charter flight to Atlanta, beginning an eight-game, 13-day trip. In less than 24 hours, he's due back at the Los Angeles Clippers' practice facility for morning shootaround before a game against the Chicago Bulls.
This is the last free afternoon he'll have for nearly a month and he has agreed to spend about two hours of it doing a video shoot for ESPN, a photo shoot for Slam Magazine and an interview with the French newspaper L'Equipe.
His teammates are long gone home for the day. Even the Clippers' coaches have scattered. Blake Griffin is staring into a camera, looking over his shoulder at a gym that used to be empty at this hour.
He's the reason the bright lights and camera crews are here. He's also trying to get through this quickly so he can enjoy what's left of the afternoon. So it's head down, eyes glowering, chin up, whatever the photographer wants.
Joe Safety, the Clippers' longtime public relations director, is watching from a nearby bench and doing his best to protect his young star. A lot of people want a lot of Griffin's time these days. It's Safety's job to play gatekeeper.
About halfway through the Slam shoot, the photographer wants a shot of Blake jumping. He steps out from his position, grabs the basketball, walks over and demonstrates how Griffin should do it.
Griffin nods. Simple enough. He's getting good at this stuff.
With the basketball in his right hand, he faces the camera and rockets high into the air.
The photographer is flummoxed.
"He just completely jumped out of the shot!" Safety calls out, laughing.
Griffin breaks out of his "Zoolander" face and finally cracks a slightly embarrassed smile.
The photographer chuckles, then signals politely with his hand that it's not necessary to jump quite so high.
The photographer has only recently met Blake Griffin. Anyone who knows him even a little would realize the futility of such a command.
Pace yourself ... Pick your spots better ... Remember, you're only a rookie ...
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro gave up on that two months ago.
"You try to temper him down at times," Del Negro says. "But it's just built into him. He's going to be aggressive and attack the basket. He's going to be up in the air and diving over the scorer's table. That's just Blake. It's something he has in him.
"It's his gift."
Two days later, Blake Griffin is on a plane to Atlanta when word comes down he is the first rookie selected by the coaches to play in the All-Star Game since Tim Duncan in 1998.
It is an incredible accomplishment. But what's even more incredible is how few people publicly question his worthiness.
When I look in the future, I want to set extremely high goals. I think that's important. Because the higher you set your goals, the more motivation you have and the harder you work.” -- Clippers forward Blake Griffin
"I think it's been awhile since there's been a rookie as good as him," teammate Chris Kaman says. "LeBron [James], Carmelo [Anthony] maybe. But it's not the same. They didn't do for their teams what he does for our team."
What Griffin has done, in the span of three and a half months, is transform the Clippers from a rudderless franchise waiting to hit its next iceberg, into one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA.
It has been months since anyone mentioned a "Clipper Curse."
It has been years since point guard Baron Davis looked this motivated or engaged.
And it has been, pretty much, forever since the Clippers were a hot ticket on the road. Through the first third of the season, the team was drawing 8.4 percent more fans on the road this season (17,592) than in 2010 (16,225).
Griffin takes the accomplishment in stride, thanking his teammates and fans. He's surprised but not shocked.
He's humble, not naive.
With his talent and ability, he should be an All-Star every year of his career. Actually, he should be more than an All-Star.
Which makes this honor a baseline, not a ceiling.
"I set a goal to be an All-Star this year," Griffin reveals. "I know that's an extremely high goal for your first year, so thankfully it happened.
"But I'm never going to be afraid to set high goals because they might not happen.
"When I look in the future, I want to set extremely high goals. I think that's important. Because the higher you set your goals, the more motivation you have and the harder you work."
Chris Kaman was among the first to really see it.
All summer he watched Griffin arrive at the Clippers' training facility in Playa Vista, Calif., around 7:30 a.m., before the morning marine layer had burned off. All summer he watched the way the kid worked.
It was shocking, Kaman thought, how much Griffin had added to his game since last season. The way his jumper was falling now, the amount of knowledge he'd absorbed simply by watching from the sidelines.
Griffin might have a few adjustments to make once the real games started, but he was clearly ready for just about anything that might come his way.
"I said it would take him about 10-15 games and I think it might actually have been a little less than that," Kaman said. "I went out [with an ankle injury] eight games in. Then like five games after that, it was all over. It was a joke.
"He's just been getting better and better. And the truth is, I don't think he realizes how good he is, or how good he can be. I know he knows he works hard and is a good player. But like, he's going to look back and see the things he's done his rookie year and realize, 'There's not a lot of people that have done that.'"
Though he hasn't been on the court since Dec. 5, Kaman has stayed close by the rookie. He sits next to him on flights and bus rides, offering counsel or just an ear.
It makes for an interesting pairing. As men, they are very different.
Griffin is a highly regimented perfectionist who dreamed of being in the Special Forces growing up in Oklahoma City. He likes to stay home, watch DVDs and eat one of the personalized meals he has delivered to his house in Manhattan Beach. Every day he eats between 5,300 and 5,500 calories. The carbohydrates, protein and fat are all carefully calibrated to his specific needs.
Kaman is an independent, outdoorsy type from western Michigan. He likes to go deep-sea fishing, fly model helicopters around his backyard and eat prodigious amounts of pie.
Other than playing for the Clippers, they have very little in common. Somehow the relationship works.
"He just has so much upside, and there's so much pressure on him, I get a little protective of him," Kaman said. "We talk all the time. I see stuff or he'll ask, 'What'd you think?' He's still got things to learn and he's always receptive to hear things.
"I know at some point, I can't help him anymore. He'll be at the point where he's experienced everything I've experienced and I can't do anything more for him.
"Just give him three or four more years. I think he'll be one of the best power forwards in the game. I know it sounds crazy to say that, but as long as he stays healthy, it'll happen."
Baron Davis seems lighter than he has in years.
Lighter in everything. On the scale, on the court, in spirit.
For the past two seasons, the mercurial point guard has been a colossal disappointment. Everything about his tenure with the Clippers has gone wrong. From the way he was supposed to team up with forward Elton Brand -- which agent David Falk made sure would never happen -- to the way he was supposed to remind Los Angeles of his boyhood idol, Magic Johnson.
Instead, he clashed with coach Mike Dunleavy from day one, was too-often injured, out-of-shape or unmotivated, and seemed headed down a path toward irrelevance at warp speed.
Then Blake Griffin arrived.
Davis can pinpoint the game when everything seemed to take off.
"For me, it was the New York game [on Nov. 20]," he said, "when I saw him take the challenge against [Amare] Stoudemire and basically just put on a hell of a performance. From that point I just sort of realized, he's really special. This is not normal."
The New York game is known in most parts of the NBA galaxy as the day Griffin used Knicks center Timofey Mozgov as a 7-foot-1 stepping-stone to superstardom.
For Griffin, it was an explosive liftoff. For the rest of the league, it was a bold-faced announcement.
For Davis, it was a resurrection.
"Playing in the situation we have now, it's like finally I get a chance to paint," Davis said. "For two years it was like, 'OK, you just paint on this wall and within these lines. You gotta color within the lines.' I've never been a player who can do that. And you're never going to get the best out of me when I have to color within the lines.
"Blake is the best finisher I've ever played with. I've never played with somebody who can finish the way he finishes. Never in my career."
Davis' minutes, shooting percentage and scoring have risen in every month since December. He's averaging a robust 8.3 assists in February and has been the source for the majority of Griffin's high-flying alley-oop dunks.
Where once there were mutters from teammates and Clippers executives about Davis' work ethic and commitment, there are increasingly heaps of praise.
Davis is smiling more, showing up earlier, staying later.
He is very clearly an artist inspired.
Griffin is his muse.
"I really love passing the ball," he says. "That's the one thing I love to do."
It wasn't long after the New York game that Griffin began noticing how much the world around him was changing.
People started recognizing him at the grocery store. Fans began waiting for his autograph at the team's hotel on the road. The crowd of reporters near his locker after games swelled during his 27-game streak of double-doubles from Nov. 20 to Jan. 19.
I think sometimes when you give a young player too many things, it's an instinct game and they get slower because they want to do it so well. I think it stunts their growth. You really have to help them grow the right way.” -- Clippers coach Vinny del Negro
Everything began to mushroom on him.
A few weeks ago, it got to be too much. The final straw came when a TV reporter sat in teammate DeAndre Jordan's chair while he interviewed Griffin.
Jordan is about as easy-going as they come. But this was too much. The next game, at the suggestion of the Clippers PR staff, Griffin began conducting his postgame interviews from a more open area in the middle of the locker room.
"Just trying to be a good teammate," he said, obviously a little embarrassed by the situation.
A week later, things really got weird.
Griffin went to a local department store to buy some extra boxer shorts before the team's long road trip at the beginning of February.
"All of a sudden, I look around and people are staring at me," he said. "They were like taking pictures of me buying Calvin Klein boxer shorts. I'm pretty sure I laughed about it. But it was kinda weird."
It was at this moment Griffin realized the world around him had forever changed.
But instead of running away, instead of hiding, he couldn't help but laugh.
A year ago he was working his way back from a season-ending knee injury. His days were spent doing strengthening exercises in the pool. His nights were spent in well-tailored suits, helplessly watching the Clippers lose 53 games from the sidelines.
Every bit of it was awful.
He's never going to get used to all of the ways his life has changed, but compared with last season, he can manage.
"You can't take yourself too seriously," he said. "You can't believe what everyone's telling you. Just like you wouldn't believe it when people are talking bad about you."
Vinny Del Negro tries not to think too deeply about it.
Somehow, for some reason -- or maybe just because -- Del Negro happens to be the guy entrusted with shepherding the first steps of two of this generation's transcendent stars: Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin.
It is a job that comes with enormous responsibility, with an upside as great as the risk.
Del Negro generally laughs off the topic and reminds you that "we've still got to play as a team. It can't be about just one guy."
Fortunately Chicago Bulls forward Joakim Noah says what everyone is thinking.
"That's some pretty lucky s---," Noah joked after the Bulls beat the Clippers on Feb. 2.
"From what I hear about Blake and what I've seen from Derrick, they're both very driven players. They're never satisfied. They've been given unbelievable gifts athletically, but they're people that just keep working.
"The thing that always amazed me about Derrick, not only was he the No. 1 pick, but he comes from Chicago. We were a struggling organization and he came in and it was like, 'Here, you're 19 and you're going to play for your city. Put us on your back and take us to the playoffs.'
"He did that and more. In dealing with all the expectations in the world, all the criticisms, and he just does it."
The pressure on Griffin was different, but no less intense. Los Angeles isn't his hometown. But the Clippers aren't the Bulls either. Chicago was looking for someone to lead it back to the top of the NBA. The Clippers had never been there in the first place.
Del Negro understands all of that. But he also has learned how to keep things small and nurture the fledgling confidence of a superstar slowly and steadily.
"You have to be patient," Del Negro said. "You have a tendency to want to give them all these things at once, because they can do all these things.
"But I really believe in giving them one or two things and let them work on them for a while. Let them get those things down, then move on to the next things. I think sometimes when you give a young player too many things, it's an instinct game and they get slower because they want to do it so well. I think it stunts their growth.
"You really have to help them grow the right way."
The right way is always going to be a matter of opinion. An end result judged best in hindsight.
Did he continue to develop? Did he make the most of his abilities? Was he nurtured the right way? Was he protected?
All those questions are still in front of Blake Griffin. The challenge going forward will be to enjoy the present.
IT'S L.A., AND IT'S LIVE
For more coverage of the complete Los Angeles sports scene, visit ESPNLA.com. »
"It's all been such a whirlwind," Griffin says. "But I've really been thinking about trying to enjoy the process. I want to remember the good things about it, and not just be completely bogged down by everything."
It is a challenge only a few men have the ability, willpower and opportunity to undertake.
For Griffin, the path forward feels instinctual and well-worn. He has been following it all his life. Always jumping higher than necessary. Always ignoring commands to pick his spots or reminders of his place in the world. Pushing himself toward a ceiling only he can fully envision.
"I know what kind of player I want to be," he says. "And it's still a long ways off. I have so much more to do, and so much more to add to my game. Honestly, I feel like I'm not even close."
Eventually Griffin is able to stay in the frame of the shot. After a couple more explosive leaps, he yields to the photographer's direction and takes some spring out of his jump.
It's nearly 2 p.m. when the photo shoot is over. Practice ended for everyone else a little after noon.
Griffin has a boxed lunch waiting for him at home. His stomach has been growling for an hour. And yet he looks over to Safety to make sure he's not needed for anything else before he leaves.
The reporter from L'Equipe has been waiting patiently for his five minutes. He has traveled across an ocean for these five minutes.
Safety thinks about walking over. But Griffin needs no explanation.
"I've started to say no to some things," he explains. "But it's hard. I never want people to think I'm big-timing them. That's a fear of mine.
"I don't want people to think I've changed. People change naturally over time and that's fine, but I don't want to change who I am as a person. I want to be the exact same person that I've been."
Fifteen minutes later, he walks out of the building and toward his car. Home is five minutes away.
Del Negro has coached him. Kaman has tried to counsel him. Davis has pushed him.
But Griffin will be alone for what comes next. Guided by what's inside him. Trusting in it. Grateful, for his gift.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.