When A.J. Griffin was growing up, it was clear that he wasn't like most kids his age. While most toddlers were shooting on their first Fisher Price hoop, he was already swishing shots on NBA regulation nets.
"When he was two years old, going on to three, I would take him up to the gym all the time and he would shoot on a basket," said his father, Adrian Griffin Sr., who played 12 years in the NBA and spent the last 13 seasons as an assistant coach in the league. "He was really small and he would take an NBA basketball and cock it behind his head and his neck, and just launch it up there. The first time it went in, everyone was like, 'Oh that's cute.' Then, he kept doing it over and over again and the whole team would come over and watch him. His strength at that age was unbelievable, and he just loved basketball."
Griffin blossomed into a consensus five-star, nationally-ranked prospect at Stepinac, then started for Duke in the Blue Devils' run to the Final Four as a freshman in his lone college basketball season.
Now, the 6-foot-6 forward is in the final countdown before hearing his name called in Thursday night's 2022 NBA Draft, a moment he's dreamed of for years.
Most outlets project him as a lottery pick.
"This last week leading up to the draft has just been exciting," Griffin said. "Leading up to it, you just get all of these emotions of when you think about all the hard times, when you had to push through to get to your dreams. It's going to be a fun night and a time I'm always going to remember."
According to various NBA mock drafts, Griffin is projected to fall somewhere in the No. 7-12 range of the first round.
He officially worked out for the Portland Trail Blazers, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans and the New York Knicks during the pre-draft process.
The Pacers are slated to draft sixth in this year's draft, while the other four teams hold picks that appear to line up with Griffin's projected place, including the Knicks, who will draft 11th overall.
"It'd be close to home and just playing for the Knicks — that would be amazing," Griffin said. "But, obviously, whichever team picks me, I'll be more than happy to be with whoever picks me.
"I just want teams to know that I'm a player who's going to be consistent and knows how to work, and just be coachable. I want to be the best, be pushed and take whatever correction or anything to play at a high level for their team."
His father has been a beacon of guidance throughout the entire process.
"I get to live vicariously through him. I went undrafted and certainly didn't get to take the route where he is now, so it's a dream come true," the elder Griffin said. "Just seeing him and all of his hard work, his love for the game — seeing that come to fruition, as a father and a parent, it brings me great joy when you see your children reach one of their dreams."
At Duke, Griffin started the final 25 games of the season after previously coming off the bench. He averaged 10.4 points and 3.9 rebounds, while shooting 49.3% overall and an efficient 44.7% from beyond the arc.
Before that, he helped Stepinac to two CHSAA Archdiocesan titles, a city and Federation title, and was named a McDonald's All-American. Griffin also won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2019 FIBA Americas U-16 championship.
"Credit to his mom, dad, and his family for keeping him levelheaded and in the right spot, but he's still the same old kid that FaceTimes, calls, and texts me and others, and just have normal conversations with them," Stepinac coach Pat Massaroni said. "He hasn't allowed the star spotlight to get to his head or affect his game. It showed us all that he can and does work harder to stay in that spotlight. He's only become a better and more mature person both on and off the court.
"We're all excited for him. Obviously, he's a special talent and he's worked really hard to be in this position."
Lauded for his physical frame and offensive abilities, particularly his 3-point shot, Griffin has also worked to show off his playmaking skills and improve his defensive capabilities in the lead up to the draft.
"My strengths are definitely shooting and competing with that dog-like spirit on the court," Griffin said. "An area of my game I feel like I didn't get to showcase a lot before is being able to facilitate and create for my teammates. That's something I know I'm capable of doing that a lot of people don't know.
"Then, I've been really touching up on defense and getting in better condition with my body. That's where these last few months, I've been working out in L.A., just working on every aspect of my game but stepping it up to a whole other level."
Although Griffin has been one of the top players in his class, it hasn't always been a smooth journey. He's been plagued by injuries over the last few years, dating back to his time at Stepinac.
A foot injury forced him to miss half of his sophomore season, then a knee injury limited him to just 12 games during his junior year, although he made it back in time to help the Crusaders capture their second CHSAA Archdiocesan title in three years.
He didn't play his senior year. When he arrived at Duke, a preseason knee injury offered more troublesome times.
However, Griffin found solace in his Christian faith, and feels that his strong finish to his lone season with the Blue Devils makes up for his injury-filled past.
"I feel like everyone's always going to try to look at the bad or try to look at your story, but moving forward I feel confident and good with my body," Griffin said. "You can't change the past. I don't dwell on it. Obviously, if you're a fan or someone watching, you're going to look at the history, injuries and stuff, but not for me. I look towards the future and put my best foot forward. I'll never let that determine or define me."
Now, Griffin looks ahead to draft night. He's accepted an invitation to the green room, an annual right reserved for the top widely-regarded NBA prospects. He'll be at the Barclays Center waiting to hear his name called.
"It's exciting, and I'm so excited to get drafted," Griffin said. "It'll be fun."
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Stepinac, Duke product A.J. Griffin projected NBA Draft lottery pick