Tuesday, July 14, 2009 | 2:10 a.m.
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After filling up the stat sheet with 27 points and 12 rebounds in his pro debut Monday night in NBA summer league play at the Thomas & Mack Center, Blake Griffin -- the top pick in last month's NBA Draft -- towered over a horde of cameras, notepads and recorders with questions fired at him in a cramped hallway.
The 6-foot-10 All-American out of Oklahoma, who had just performed in front of 3,000 fans, Los Angeles Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, Clippers owner Donald Sterling and NBA commissioner David Stern (among several other notables), was humble in describing a showing that lived up to the hype, earning him a standing ovation in the game's final minute.
"I'd say a B-minus," he said in a deep, quiet tone following the 93-82 Clippers triumph. "Mostly, we won, and that's great. But I did some things wrong defensively. That's the hardest part for me is picking up on different things and also just remembering plays. It hadn't been a problem in the past, but so much was thrown at me the last three days that it kinda just gets jumbled up and I messed up a few times."
Blake Griffin is allowed this week to make all the mistakes he wants. He'll still be in the Clippers' starting lineup come opening night this fall, pretty much no matter what.
Just hours earlier, his older brother, Taylor, spoke in a similar voice with a much smaller group of reporters -- three, to be exact.
Taylor, two years older than Blake and a teammate of his younger brother the past two seasons at OU, was a second-round pick of the Phoenix Suns that same night Blake waltzed across the stage in a crisp black suit and shook the mitt of the commish.
Second-rounders aren't allowed the same lengthy leash, and nothing is guaranteed, be it money or roster spots. While Blake is introducing himself to the pro basketball universe this week in Las Vegas, Taylor is trying to simply make sure he gets to training camp with the Suns -- or anyone, for that matter -- in the fall. All the while, he's playing a new position.
"I want to change my game and improve as quick as possible, but I do feel like I have some time to develop," said the elder Griffin, who at 6-foot-7 is trying his hand as a small forward. "I think I can, it's just I've been so used to playing the four position the last four years. I've grown a lot since the end of the season, just working out as a three, playing the three position, shooting from farther out, shooting NBA threes, my handles have gotten a lot better.
"With my work ethic, I'm gonna keep improving until I stop working."
The 2009 summer league will culminate with the two brothers going head-to-head in the week's final game, with Phoenix and Los Angeles tipping off at 7:30 p.m. Sunday night at the Mack.
Until then, the two have very different agendas.
At Oklahoma, it all set up beautifully.
Blake Griffin's size and strength allowed him to overpower practically anyone while playing center, with Taylor manning the power forward slot.
But at the professional level, Taylor's physical makeup is more suited for the small forward position. Hence, his transition.
There's no better system to learn in than the fast-paced, up-and-down style Phoenix employs under coach Alvin Gentry. For the most part on Monday, Taylor looked comfortable in that role.
He finished with four points on one-of-five shooting with two rebounds and an assist to his credit in 21 minutes played in a 95-90 victory over Dallas.
Inside the numbers, however, he looked fluid and comfortable on the fast break, with his only glaring flaw coming in that he hesitated to pull the trigger here and there on the outside jumpers he's been working on since the end of his career as a Sooner.
"That's not something I'm used to," he said. "I'm used to pump-faking and getting to the hole. That's probably one of the biggest things for me, but once I get rid of that and get to where I'm just shooting without hesitation, I think I'll be good."
Taylor Griffin has worked this whole offseason with one goal: making an NBA roster.
He's been so focused on making it through, that he didn't even realize along the way that the Harlem Globetrotters made him the top pick in their third annual player draft last month.
"Honestly, Blake was the first one that told me about it," Taylor recalled. "He heard about it in an interview, they asked him about it. I didn't even know until he told me. Obviously, I wasn't focused on that. It's a nice option to fall back on. I didn't know anything. I had to turn down interviews because I didn't know what to talk about."
Instead of taking the guaranteed solid living that could come with a contract from the Globetrotters, Taylor opted to roll the dice in Vegas as a still-unsigned second-round pick.
"I'd much rather be here," he added. "For me, this is my desire.
"Each step of the way, I've gotten to where I've reached my goals. The first part was coming to workouts, impressing teams and getting drafted. I got that. Next step is to make a roster."
No one outside of Taylor himself believes that can be accomplished -- especially as a small forward -- more than brother Blake.
While Blake Griffin was busy averaging 22.7 points and 14.4 rebounds per game last season for the 30-6 Sooners, Taylor continued his steady improvement with the finest year of his OU career as a senior, averaging 9.6 points and 5.8 boards.
"He's so strong -- He can guard the three," Blake said. "I feel he can guard the two, three, four and occasionally the five because he's so strong and he moves well. I think a lot of people don't give him credit for how athletic he is. I saw it all growing up, just how he catches people. He'll dunk on people and you don't expect it. He's so explosive, and I think he's gonna be fine.
"From what I hear, he's been playing really well, but not from him -- from other people. I think he can make it."
Taylor, however, has no hesitation in confessing that this week at the summer league is much more important for him than his little brother.
"Definitely me, no question," he said. "He's signed, sealed, delivered. Everybody knows how good he is. I, on the other hand, have a lot to prove."
After he was done making his initial impression in the Cox Pavilion, Taylor sauntered over and found a seat at the Mack to watch Blake's grand opening.
Without the burden of worrying whether a roster spot is in his future, Blake played like a mad dog let off the chain.
On the game's first three possessions, he made sure to announce his presence swiftly and firmly.
A designed play netted him an easy layup underneath just after tip-off against the Lakers.
"That's something I wanted to do was hit my first layup, make that first shot a layup and just take the edge off a little bit," he said. "I kind of settled down on my jumpers."
He showed that immediately on the next possession, barking for the ball from point guard Mike Taylor just after crossing mid-court. From there, he settled in after taking it to the left block, then spun and pushed a sweet jumper off the glass.
"I love using the glass," he said. "It gives me a comfort level."
Well, he sure appeared to be beyond comfortable on the Clips' third trip up the floor, casually swishing a 3-pointer from atop the key, giving him the team's first seven points just like that.
"I'm not gonna be a guy that shoots the three a lot," he said with a grin. "I felt like I was wide open on that one and I didn't roll enough, so I just caught it and let it go. I'm not gonna settle for threes. I know where my bread-and-butter is, and I've been working really hard on the 15- and 17-foot shots."
The entire array of his ability -- bred from intimidating size, seemingly endless strength and massive hands that provide a surprisingly soft touch -- was on display the rest of the night, keeping the intrigued crowd on edge.
As a finishing act, he left a lasting impression on the Clippers' brass seated courtside when he took a charge late in the game with his team up by 15 points. An unnecessary risk in the minds of many, but simply natural to Griffin.
"Like everyone else, I'm just trying to show my coaches and show my team what I can do, and in my mind there's never a bad time to take a charge," he said. "That's the way I've been taught to play, and I'm not gonna stop playing just because we're up."
Last year in the summer league, the Clippers shut down first-round pick Eric Gordon a little bit early when he got banged up, avoiding the risk of further injury.
But Griffin, who played a team-high 29 minutes on Monday, said he figures to play extensively in each of the Clippers' five contests this week, with the next one coming on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. back at the Mack against New Orleans.
Nothing, however, might mean more to Blake than being able to play in Sunday's finale.
To his knowledge, Blake said it's the first time he and his brother will have ever squared off in a real game.
"It's gonna be fun -- It's gonna be really fun," he said. "He's gonna be playing the three, so we won't get to guard each other, but hopefully we'll get to switch off a few times.
"It's been different, but we still talk every day. I'm still asking him what his workouts are like, and stuff like that. I heard they got a win earlier, I heard he played well. I was definitely happy for him, and I hope they win every game ... except for when we play them."