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Monday, March 30, 2009
Paths crisscross for Griffin, Hansbrough

By Stephen A. Smith
ESPN

Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin's college season may be over, but his future has never looked brighter.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The lights were bright. The scouts were in place. So was a capacity crowd gleefully stuffed inside the FedExForum on Sunday afternoon for the final game of the South Regional.

For the fans, it was about Oklahoma vs. North Carolina, and Blake Griffin vs. Tyler Hansbrough. But for those scouts, it wasn't about that.

It was about Griffin. Period.

The scouts pretty much knew what they were going to see from everyone.

But they wanted to see Griffin anyway.

In NBA circles, this is how stars align.

Hansbrough, who as recently as a year ago swept all the national player of the year awards, talks about "team ... team ... team," while his coach, Roy Williams, looks at reporters with exasperation when they ask him whether his pupil can match up with Griffin, the college game's new superstar and this season's presumed player of the year.

"This is about a team," Williams articulated, before his Tar Heels ramrodded the Sooners to advance to their second straight Final Four. "This is not about individuals."

Williams is right when it comes to March Madness, but not to the NBA scouts in attendance, which Williams knows.

In the NBA, you hope to find a quality player and person like Hansbrough.

And you pray for and build long careers with someone like Griffin.

The NBA personnel who flew into Memphis over the weekend, including such luminaries as Miami Heat president Pat Riley, got exactly what they came for. While it might have been nice to see Oklahoma hit some perimeter shots so UNC wouldn't get away with double-teaming Griffin all day long, or to have Hansbrough avoid early foul trouble, there were still enough Griffin post moves, ballhandling maneuvers and aerial assaults to bring home the point.

"Blake Griffin is a man," one NBA scout said. "You can end whatever speculation there is right now. Come June, he will be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft by anyone who gets it. Anyone.

Tyler Hansbrough and Blake Griffin
Hansbrough will have a hard time matching up with bigs in the NBA. Griffin, not so much.

"The only way that doesn't happen is if he elects to stay for his junior year. His skills are too superior to everyone else. He can score at will. He's a ferocious rebounder with quick jumping ability. He's about to be the player of the year. There's 'star' written all over this guy.

"Tyler Hansbrough is a very good player with a place for him on the next level. He's simply too good a kid, too productive and too hard a worker not to be picked somewhere in the top 15.

"But Blake Griffin is just special. They shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence."

Let the record show: When it comes to the difference between Hansbrough and Griffin, I totally agree.

It's not to take anything away from Hansbrough. That would be unfair and insensitive. In fact, all the observers I spoke to, including former college and NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo, CBS analyst Clark Kellogg and others, expressed great admiration for the Tar Heels senior.

"He's had a fantastic career," Chris Wallace, the GM of the Memphis Grizzlies, said before Hansbrough and Griffin met Sunday. "He plays with tremendous toughness, passion and energy at all times. He also can score the ball from the 15-to-17-feet area, as well as around the basket, and he's a guy [for whom] what you see is what you get. A hard, hard-working guy. Lots of hustle. An intangible-laden guy who knows he needs to be in order to be effective.

"I think there's a place for him on the NBA level because energy and passion are underrated qualities. Especially over an 82-game season."

Carlesimo's take: "Tyler is more athletic than people think. He doesn't have cement feet. In fact, he's deceptively quick. He moves well around the basket. He has a better perimeter shot than Griffin right now and he's competed at a very high level for four years. He certainly shoots better from the free-throw line than the 59 percent Griffin shoots, too."

But here is what no one will say publicly: Hansbrough's work ethic and intensity are the only reasons he'll be a pro. And if he ends up being a lottery pick, it will be because this looks like a weak draft.

The combination of size and athleticism he'll face in the NBA -- all the scouts say -- is expected to limit Hansbrough's productivity. There are only so many pump-fakes that are going to work on the next level.

"It's impossible not to like the kid," another NBA scout told me. "While everyone's wearing down over the course of an 82-game regular season, his M.O. shows that's unlikely with him. But the truth is, no one knows where he'll land in the draft, and you don't even know if he'll be a starter. That's not a question with Griffin."

One scout labels Griffin's game as "automatic" from 10 feet and in. Carlesimo raves about his intensity, going so far as to compare it to Hansbrough's. And according to Kellogg, any questions about Griffin's defensive liabilities are easily dispelled.

"Griffin doesn't have the weapons available to him that Hansbrough has with North Carolina," Kellogg explained. "UNC easily has three or four guys [Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green] that could drop 20 on you. You can see Oklahoma did not have that.

"As a result, Griffin had to do it all offensively, so you have to believe that makes him a bit passive defensively on the floor. He's got to be concerned with foul trouble, with staying in the game."

That is, until he reaches the next level.

While some scouts said they think of former Celtics player Dave Cowens when thinking of Hansbrough, names like Amare Stoudemire tickle the mind when talking about Griffin. Kellogg and Carlesimo both allude to the ferocity with which he attacks the basket, and his thunderous finishes. Griffin's quickness around the basket and his creativity in traffic, along with his physique, make me think of Len Bias, the former University of Maryland star who died from a cocaine overdose in 1986.

"Television doesn't do Blake's body justice," Kellogg opined. "He's ripped, physically. He's made for the NBA."

So is Hansbrough.

For different reasons, of course … and on an entirely different level.

Stephen A. Smith covers the NBA for ESPN.