The Education of Eddie G.

K.G. and E.G. have each other's back
David Kern

A writer from ESPN The Magazine was in town last week to do a story on Eddie Griffin. In a season already beset by brawls and bad publicity, the improbable day-by-day redemption of Eddie G. is the feel-good elixir of the hour in the NBA press.

Four years ago, Griffin was widely regarded as the top high school basketball player in the country. Then a cafeteria fight with a teammate got him expelled from Roman Catholic High in Philadelphia, forcing him to complete his studies under home supervision. His lone year in college at Seton Hall was marred by an occasion when, according to news reports, he "sucker punched" another teammate in the locker room. During his three seasons in the pros, he has been convicted of marijuana possession, charged with felony assault for allegedly punching and shooting a gun at his girlfriend (he eventually pled down to a misdemeanor), and arrested for allegedly attempting to assault a man outside a Houston gas station at three in the morning.

Last year, he was dropped by two teams without playing a single game. He has been treated for depression and anger management, had his driver's license suspended, spent 11 days in jail, and checked into the Betty Ford Center for more than a month to stem his alcohol abuse. As he told a Philadelphia reporter earlier this month, "I couldn't get any lower than I was." He will be on probation well into 2006 for his various offenses.

Griffin has turned a corner in storybook fashion, working diligently throughout the summer to get back in shape. One of the friends he sees during the off-season down in Houston is Timberwolves point guard Sam Cassell, who helped make the sales pitch that brought him to Minnesota this fall. It is an ideal situation for him. He is tutored during practices by Kevin McHale, one of the greatest big men in NBA history, and a man who believed Griffin was the best player to come out of college when Houston drafted him three years ago. Coach Flip Saunders has brought him along slowly and deliberately. And MVP Kevin Garnett has become his mentor and role model.

Reporters have duly noted that Griffin's locker is next to KG's, the same stall once occupied by veteran Sam Mitchell, who played the same role for Garnett in his first few seasons. KG has played up the symmetry of it all, telling reporters Mitchell was the big brother he never had, a guy whose only request was that Garnett pay it forward by providing similar support for the next crop of kids. Regarding Griffin, Garnett proclaimed last week that "Eddie is a gift from God. I thank Houston and Jersey for letting him go."

The rest of the script for this Hollywood-style saga practically writes itself. It ends in a championship led by KG and Eddie G.

But there's the rub. Griffin's resurrection on and off the court is such a beguiling tale that it's easy to overlook the fact that this "gift from God" is still a relatively raw 22-year-old player. At the very least, Griffin and his teammates face a lot of adjustments if they're to maximize his enormous potential contribution.

Three weeks ago, I gushed over Griffin's current value to the Wolves (see "The Man in the Middle," 11/29/04). I stand by the particulars: Among Minnesota's options at center, he is the best offensive rebounder, shot blocker, and outside shooter, and possesses the surest hands and best court vision. And as KG readily notes, "not since Googs" left six years ago has a fellow big man's offensive prowess compelled opponents to forego double-teaming Garnett with a couple of bigs in the low post.

But Griffin's phenomenal outside shooting has obscured the frequency with which his shots short-circuit the ball movement vital to the Wolves' offense. His ratio of shots (200) to assists (15) is the highest among Minnesota's top eight scorers. That's a problem, and another is his inability to get to the foul line. Despite grabbing more offensive rebounds per minute than anyone else on the team, Griffin is near the bottom of the roster in free throws per minute. Shortcomings like these matter over time. As Griffin inevitably cools off from outside the three-point arc (he's shooting 28 percent over the past four games), he'll need to find the open teammate more often. Second, generating free throws becomes even more crucial during the playoffs.

Interior defense is likewise more important during the postseason, and here too Griffin is a work in progress. Although he is naturally gifted at help-defense, and a talented, vigorous defensive rebounder, Griffin has been victimized at times by back-door cuts to the basket (Sacramento) or his failure to box out his man (Chicago). If the road to a championship goes through San Antonio, Detroit, or Miami, Griffin will need to improve his D in the paint.

In some respects, it doesn't help that the policemen of the team's offense--KG and Cassell--are both such ardent Griffin boosters. If Wally Szczerbiak had Griffin's shot-to-pass ratio, he'd be told to swing the ball. Griffin needs the same reminders, particularly given all the minutes he plays at crunch time, when Cassell and KG need to be handling the rock.

And remember that Griffin's offensive success so far is mostly a function of his being able to play off KG. Right now Minnesota is averaging 18 more points per 48 minutes when KG is in the lineup than when he is on the bench. That's a larger gap than in the past two seasons.

Eddie Griffin deserves all the credit in the world for turning his life around. He deserves his crunch time minutes, and the right to be regarded as one of the team's potential cornerstones for years to come (provided the Wolves can re-sign him). But right now he remains a nice, complementary component of the team's drive for a championship. Both he and the team should be more than satisfied with that.

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