Kia Rookie Ladder: AJ Griffin finds his rhythm in Atlanta


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


The NBA rookie “wall” is a steadfast barrier to new player development, something that most of them become overworked, injured, overused, or even underused at some point in their rookie seasons.

AJ Griffin, the 19-year-old winger for the Atlanta Hawks, hit it early — even before he could watch the action of the Las Vegas Summer League. And it was made by him.

Griffin appeared so fired up, so determined to prove the Falcons right with their selection (16th overall), that he passed it.

“A day or two after the draft, he was the first in the building,” Atlanta coach Nate McMillan said Monday in Chicago. “He started conditioning and eventually just hit the ground running to prepare for the summer league. But that’s what he does. He works on his game, he spends time in the gym.”

“After I got out of college I hurt and before college, I hurt,” Griffin said.

At Duke in 2021, he arrived as a five-star prospect, Griffin suffered a knee injury before he even started his college season. He recovered well, playing in 39 games and hitting nearly 45% on his three pitches while helping the Blue Devils to the Final Four with fellow pitcher Paolo Panchero.

An injury again (foot) during practice and the loss of Vegas suggested a season long, low-key move to the G League College Park Skyhawks. But the Hawks’ family injury and personal considerations kept him out. He made 44 games, averaged 21 minutes and made 10 starts, contributing 9.8 points per game while hitting 40% on his three-pointers.

The skinny 6-foot-6 teen has logged time in three jobs. He threw some spotlight early by beating the Buzzers to beat Toronto in November and Chicago 11 games later. Another rookie with multiple winners in the same season? The Bulls’ Tony Kukoc in 1993-1994.

AJ Griffin’s game-winning layup secured the Raptors’ overtime victory.

“Offensively, he’s been very consistent with what he puts on the ground,” McMillan said. “The defensive end is where he really works and tries to control the guard [wings and forwards].

“He’s been a pleasure to train—whatever you tell him, he does. He asks what you have to do questions. He’s been nothing but a professional since he entered our facility.”

In this way, McMillan said, Griffin clearly has an NBA pedigree — his father Adrian played nine seasons from 1999 to 2008 after he got out of Seton Hall and has been an assistant coach with five franchises since.

One such team was the Bulls, captained by Tom Thibodeau from 2010 to 2015. So with the younger Griffin’s visit to the United centre, some memories from his primary school years were stirred up.

“I used to go into the family room all the time and shoot the little hoop,” AJ Griffin recalled Monday. “The déjà vu was coming – it felt so good to be back here tonight.

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

Here are this week’s rankings, including Griffin’s 10th-place ranking, in the Kia Rookie Ladder:

This week’s top five in the 2022-23 Kia rookie ladder:

(All stats as of Tuesday, January 24)

1. Paolo Panchero, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 20.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.8 apg
Since the last ladder: 16.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.7 apg
The last ladder: 1
Draft selection: No. 1 overall

The Celtics said goodbye to the Orlando Magic in general and Panchero in particular on Monday after losing the season series 1-3. Banchero has been 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 was no coincidence that Boston’s injury report the next morning included “Al Horford, lower back stiff, out.”

2. Benedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 17.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.4 apg
Since the last ladder: 20.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 0.8 apg
The last ladder: 2
Draft selection: No. 6 in general

Mathurin was at his best offense against Chicago on Monday to help Indiana slip in seven games. He scored 15 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, scoring +13 as the Pacers completed the 21-point comeback. His aggressiveness has earned him double-digit trips to the line in six of his past 13 games and 12 games overall.

3. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 7.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 0.7 apg
Since the last ladder: 9.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.0 apg
The last ladder: 5
Draft selection: No. 22 overall

There is a blogger in Utah making a case This week, Kessler should be the ROY favorite based on a bunch of stats. It would be helpful if his minutes went up and he took his production (13.6 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.4 blocks per 36) with them. Only five of the past 31 winners have averaged a 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 the last ladder: 9.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.3 apg
The last ladder: 3
Draft selection: No. 12 overall

Williams distinguishes the all-around assist. The Thunder are 12-9 since he was moved to the starting lineup to stay on Dec. 12. His 44 dives ranked him second among rookies behind Kessler of Utah. And he’s stuck with pretty good form, wearing Kobe Bryant sneakers and a 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 the last ladder: 18.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 0.5 apg
The last ladder: 6
Draft selection: No. 4 in general

Murray’s confidence has remained unaltered through the ups and downs of his intro season in the NBA. He just posted a 60-50-100 launch week which is 42.1% of the arc at 5.9 3FGA. One source of reassurance: teammate and teammate Ewan Harrison Barnes, a veteran overseeing the potential replacement.

Next 5:

6. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 15.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.4 apg
Since the last ladder: 14.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 7.5 apg
The last ladder: 4
Draft selection: No. 5 in general

Force feeding in PG in the absence of Cunningham = inconsistency.

7. Jalen Doreen, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 8.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since the last ladder: 17.0 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 1.0 apg
The last ladder: 8
Draft selection: No. 13 overall

Paige is in France after his 15-23 night in Paris.

8. Jabari Smith Jr., Houston Rockets

Season stats: 12.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since the last ladder: 8.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.0 apg
The last ladder: 7
Draft selection: No. 3 in general

Lowest point yet in terms of low impact on low level missiles.

9. Jeremy Suchan, San Antonio Spurs

Season stats: 9.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.4 apg
Since the last ladder: 17.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
The last ladder: 10
Draft selection: No. 9 choose in general

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

10. AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks

Season stats: 9.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since the last ladder: 9.3 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.3 apg
The last ladder: 11
Draft selection: No. 16 overall

Wing launches 60.3 overall, 52.9% depth in 2023.

11. Tari Eason, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 8.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 0.9 apg
Since the last ladder: 10.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.7 apg
The last ladder: Unavailable
Draft selection: No. 17 choose in general

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 the last ladder: 12.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.0 apg
The last ladder: Unavailable
Draft selection: No. 15 overall

His streak is 17p, 6r, 5 blocks in 19 minutes. Off the bench at HOU earns this degree.

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Steve Ashburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can email him here, search Archive it here And Follow him on Twitter.

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