At one point during summer league action, Atlanta Hawks head coach Nate McMillan spoke of rookie AJ Griffin in a very “right now” sort of way. McMillan talked about how well the former Duke wing would be able to complement star Trae Young with his catch-and-shoot ability. That skill became even more critical with Danilo Gallinari and Kevin Huerter traded this summer.
That is two of the Hawks’ top three sharpshooters who will be playing elsewhere next season with Young falling in the middle last season.
Unfortunately, Griffin failed to suit up for any summer league action.
A foot injury kept him sidelined and from getting valuable time getting into basketball shape. Even more, it made what was likely going to be a tough ask even tougher with Griffin unable to change opinions any time soon.
AJ Griffin faces an uphill battle to crack Atlanta Hawks’ rotation
Griffin’s injury history contributed to his slide from projected lottery pick – with some suggestions he could sneak into the top-five. Instead, he joined Jalen Johnson as a former Duke player to slide all the way into the Hawks’ laps. And, much like Johnson, a lack of floor time coming in figures to relegate him to a redshirt rookie season.
Unlike Johnson, who only played in 13 collegiate games only to sit out and get healthy for the 2021 NBA Draft, Griffin played in 39 games for the Blue Devils last season, helping them reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Griffin’s injuries, writes Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman, will make playing time hard to come by.
“Missing summer league won’t help Griffin see the floor early. His best chance at minutes will be at the 4 behind John Collins, who’s also been rumored in trades all summer. Atlanta moving Collins would really open the door for Griffin to provide shooting off the bench, though the addition of Justin Holiday, a potentially healthy Jalen Johnson, and breakout candidate Onyeka Okongwu could also be higher in the pecking order.”
The 6-foot-6 Griffin finding time at the 4 in small-ball lineups would certainly open up the floor for the Hawks to get dribble penetration.
But an even more likely role for Griffin once healthy is spot-up wing shooter off of the bench.
While that could technically mean he’s the “power forward” at times, his game is not likely to be confused for a big’s. And his questionable foot speed and defense could mean looks with him at the 4 should be used sparingly by McMillan and Co.
McMillan is also notorious for not playing his rookies, adding another layer of difficulty for Griffin.
Wasserman summed up Griffin’s chances to find his way into regular minutes this season succinctly.
“A quiet rookie season seems most realistic for Griffin, who’s still 18 years old.”
That is both the blessing and the curse. For all of his immense talent, Griffin is still one of the youngest players in his draft class tying with former Duke teammate Trevor Keels for second behind 13th-overall pick Jalen Duren (Detroit Pistons) and 56th-overall pick Yannick Nzosa (Washington Wizards).
He has plenty of time to grow and plenty of room to develop. Perhaps he will end the season with a vital role on what the Hawks hope is a top team in the Eastern Conference. But, for now, the G-League seems like the most likely outcome.