He entered the season with an uncertain role as a first-year player. The team is built to win now and has often prioritized playing time for its veterans. For instance, last year, first-round pick Jalen Johnson made only 22 appearances and spent much of the season in the G League.
Griffin played sparingly to begin the year but eventually moved into the rotation with the Hawks down a few players. He had a breakout performance on Nov. 7, setting a new career-high of 24 points, four rebounds and three steals in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Hawks coach Nate McMillan explained his role at this stage of the season.
All we’re asking of him is to come out and play hard. He is going to make some mistakes. We’re looking for him on the perimeter and will continue to do that. He is learning defensive coverages. Playing at the two, the three position, there is a difference in the players you’re guarding.
You’re guarding a lot more pick and rolls at that two position and then you’re guarding guys that are coming off of pin downs at that three position. All of this is new to him and we just want him to keep working and getting that experience out there on the floor and knocking down shots.
Griffin had his best stretch of the season in late November.
He finished in double figures in four straight games, scoring at least 11 points in each contest. He even earned his first career start on Nov. 21 in a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, recording 17 points, three steals, two rebounds and one assist.
Entering the rotation has greatly helped Griffin with the transition to the NBA. It has enabled him to adjust to coverages and the speed of the game much quicker, something that will only help him in the latter stages of the season.
“I would definitely say it is a blessing to be able to play the game I love,” Griffin told Rookie Wire. “Just to be out there playing and to be able to be out there with my teammates. The support I get from playing and going through that stretch is all love and (an example of) how great it is to hoop with these guys.”
The Hawks executed a perfect play in the final seconds of overtime on Nov. 19 to set up Griffin with the game-winning layup. Trae Young maneuvered past four Raptors players and then floated the ball up to Griffin and the rookie tossed the ball in off the glass to beat the horn.
The play gave him some bragging rights over his dad as the win evened the season series between the two teams at one game apiece. Needless to say, there will be plenty of trash-talking ahead of the season finale on Jan. 14 in Toronto.
“He was proud of me,” Griffin said of the conversation with his dad afterward. “Really how we’re competitive, we just talk about how it is 1-1 now and just wanting to go into that next game and get the second win.”
— NBA (@NBA) November 20, 2022
Griffin talks to his father every day, despite the two being on different teams. Adrian watches AJ play as much as he can, and will often send him film to watch. He offers him feedback on his performances to help AJ develop on the court.
The 19-year-old is in the midst of another strong run after producing three straight games in double figures. Included in that span is a career-high-tying 24-point performance in a key win over Denver. He set a new season-high with 11 made field goals in 34 minutes.
AJ Griffin tonight:
24 Points (matches career high)
— Duke Men’s Basketball (@DukeMBB) December 3, 2022
Griffin is averaging 9.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals on 37.6% shooting from 3-point range in 20 games. He ranks seventh in scoring among all first-year players and is fourth in both 3-point percentage and total 3s (32).
He is staying ready for his opportunity to play with his minutes a bit sporadic. Like most rookies, Griffin is still figuring out his way on and off the court and is in the process of etching out a set routine.
“I think that is huge,” Griffin said. “It will definitely help me down at the end of the year. It is good to have those habits. The first year is good to see where you’re at, see where you need to improve on your habits and make sure you’re treating your body right.”
Griffin is the second-youngest player in the NBA this year and is emerging as a key rotation player in the early going. He is flourishing on the court through the first quarter of the season and looks poised to have a strong rookie campaign.
Given his lineage and work ethic, that may not be all that surprising.