- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Every year, the top prospects in the draft leave behind the comforts of college and head out to workout sites in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Florida and elsewhere, looking for an edge that might put them in a better draft position.
They hire such specialists as personal trainers, ex-coaches, chefs and former Navy SEALs.
The techniques differ from player to player, but the basic goal is the same: to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing and thriving in the NBA.
For the past decade, I've taken a pre-draft tour to the top sites. I've seen Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Greg Oden and a host of others prepare for the NBA draft. This year is no different. Over the course of the next few weeks, I'll be traveling throughout the U.S. to check in on the pre-draft workouts of the top prospects in the draft.
We'll see Hasheem Thabeet, James Harden, Jordan Hill, Earl Clark, Jrue Holiday, DeJuan Blair, Austin Daye, Darren Collison, Nick Calathes and a host of others over the next two weeks. The trip will end at the Chicago pre-draft combine, where the 60 top prospects in the draft compete in a number of skill and physical challenges in front of every GM in the league.
The tour began this week, just one week before the May 19 lottery, when I dropped in on Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, the consensus No. 1 pick in the draft.
Griffin undergoes a unique workout in San Francisco. The sessions are quite secretive, and we won't be able to share all the details until the debut of an upcoming Blake Griffin feature on ESPN and ESPN.com.
But here are a few observations:
• Many top picks at this time of year are getting fitted for their suit on draft night and flying around the country trying to ink endorsement deals. Griffin is an exception. He's more concerned with dominating right out of the gate.
Griffin said last year that he didn't declare for the 2008 NBA draft because he didn't feel he was ready for the league. This year he knows he is. And he's determined to prove it.
On the court, his workout is run by former Spurs and Sonics head coach Bob Hill, whose regimen on Monday highlighted a couple of talents we didn't see from Griffin when he was at Oklahoma.
First, Griffin appears to be a much better ball handler than your average big man, excelling at two-ball and three-ball drills as well as change-of-direction drills. In fact, he had a better handle than anyone else on the court, including combo guard Anthony Goods.
Second, Griffin can shoot the ball with range. He's no Ray Allen, but he showed the ability to consistently hit the college 3-point shot in the workout. If he can just make a 15-foot jumper in the NBA, he could be unstoppable.
The rest of the stuff you already know. Matched up against another physical specimen, UConn's Jeff Adrien, Griffin showed his quickness, strength and explosive leaping ability on a number of post and shell drills. He also played more physical defense than we saw from him at Oklahoma.
Griffin was pretty open about his biggest perceived weakness: his lack of defense at Oklahoma.
"I was on a team where I couldn't get in foul trouble," Griffin said. "Coach [Jeff] Capel was pretty clear that I needed to be on the floor. So I was always conscious, maybe too conscious, about picking up fouls.
"I definitely [think] that it's an area of my game that needs improvement. But I feel like I'm going to be a good defender in the NBA. I like to play defense."
• Griffin looks like the closest thing to Superman the NBA has seen since Dwight Howard, and I really got to see that up close in his workouts with fitness trainer Frank Matrisciano, who has been called "Hell's Trainer." Whatever Matrisciano threw his way, Griffin took it, excelled at it and was waiting for more.
"It's really pushed me," Griffin said. "I want to be challenged. I want to be the best, and I know that means I have to be ready physically and mentally for the league. When I met Frank, I thought this could help get me there. It was a huge help last season and I think it will continue to give me an edge as I prepare for summer league. I'm not doing this to get drafted. I'm doing this so I'm ready for the NBA."
• Everyone has been asking me about Griffin's height. I didn't see him measured. Coach Hill said he's 6-foot-10 in shoes, though if I were to guess, I'd say 6-foot-9. He was noticeably taller than Kenny Thomas, who's listed as 6-foot-7. Either way, I don't think it's going to matter -- regardless of how he measures, he's the No. 1 pick.
• While people close to him say Griffin is a practical joker off the court (he once said he wanted to host "Saturday Night Live" someday), when it comes to workouts he is fiercely competitive, focused and anxious to push himself as hard as he can.
"There can be a lot of nonsense in this business," said Hill. "But for Blake, this is serious. He wants to be the best and he's willing to work tirelessly to make it happen. I've just been amazed at how professionally he's handling all of this. He gets that it takes hard work to be great in the league and he's willing to do it."
Griffin wasn't the only guy working out in San Francisco. Three other prospects, UConn's Jeff Adrien, Stanford's Anthony Goods and Blake's brother, Taylor, were also prepping for the draft. They were joined by former Mavs second-round pick Nick Fazekas and Sacramento Kings forward Kenny Thomas.
• Of the rest of the group, Goods had the best workout. Goods hasn't gotten much attention in terms of the draft and wasn't even invited to the Portsmouth Invitational. But while he wasn't a dominant college player, he has a few things going for him.
First, Goods can be an excellent shooter with deep range. Second, he's athletic, with a quick first step and explosive leaping ability. Third, he's a hard worker.
He's not the athlete Griffin is, but he also went through Matrisciano's training in an impressive fashion. When Matrisciano gave him an incredibly difficult task to do when he was dog-tired, Goods said, "This isn't good, it's great." And he meant it.
On the downside, Goods is a bit undersized as a 2-guard and didn't show a natural ability to play the point at Stanford. He was also a very streaky shooter at Stanford. That didn't show in the gym here, but it may become more apparent in high-stress settings.
• Adrien is also interesting. He's strong as an ox and quite physical, and he has a decent face-the-basket game. When matched up alongside Griffin, he didn't look great, but he'll look better when he isn't matched up against the best player in the draft.
• Of the three, Blake's brother Taylor appears to be the biggest sleeper. He has been living in Blake's shadow the past two seasons at Oklahoma, but after his workout, I wondered why we hadn't been watching him more carefully.
He has some of the same strengths as his brother -- he's tough, physical, an excellent athlete and a very hard worker. He also showed off an impressive jumper in the workout with legit NBA 3-point range.
More than that, he does the kinds of things that might help a team win -- he could be an intangibles guy in the mold of Shane Battier. I could see him making the league as a defensive stopper at the 3 who can also provide some offense in spot-up situations.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.
Blake Griffin is only one of the many NBA draft prospects ESPN.com will visit in coming weeks.