DARIEN, Ill. — Hinsdale South basketball coach Brett Moore arrived home from his Hawaii honeymoon in late July last year.
And almost as soon as his plane touched down in Chicago, his cellphone lit up with calls from college coaches in the Missouri Valley Conference.
They were … worried.
See, while Moore and his wife lounged on the north shores of Oahu, Zion Griffin, Moore’s star senior to-be, had exploded for 28.6 points per game at a heavy-hitter AAU event in St. Louis. At the time, the 6-foot-6, 210-pounder was an MVC darling, having picked up Drake, Loyola, Illinois State and Southern Illinois offers earlier in July.
“Two (MVC) coaches were like, ‘I hope he just stays home and doesn’t go (to more big events),'” Moore remembered from the phone calls, “‘because he’s going to blow up.'”
Yep, he did.
Iowa State offered July 23. The following weekend, Griffin showed out at an event in Kansas City. Soon Illinois, Pitt and Kansas entered the fray with offers, and as we know, he committed to the Cyclones in September.
Griffin’s rise in the recruiting world was remarkable. He was a fringe mid-major prospect before July, and a Bill Self target by August. Some of that boils down to luck — playing your best at the right time in front of the right people.
More than anything, though, Griffin’s profile blossomed as a result of offseason work on one glaring hole in his game: He developed a 3-point shot.
“In college, nobody wants a 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6 center,” Griffin told the Register before practice at Hinsdale South on Tuesday. “So I’m like, ‘I’ve got to do something to get out of the center spot.’ And my (AAU coach) told me, ‘If you don’t want to play the five anymore, you’ve got to show me you can do something other than that.’ So I’m like, ‘I’ve got to get in the gym, put up as many reps as I can in a day until it gets consistent.'”
Griffin earned trickles of college interest as a junior, averaging 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. But despite his obvious athleticism and defensive range, his ceiling was lower with an offensive arsenal that only extended to the midrange. In essence, he projected as an undersized big.
To go about developing a Division I-ready 3-pointer, Griffin got technical. After his junior season of high school wrapped up, he broke down film of his 3-pointers and realized three things: His form was fine and he elevated well, but he rarely put enough on his shot.
A spring full of trips to the weight room helped fix that. Griffin’s long-range game slowly improved throughout April performances with his AAU team, the Illinois Hoopers.
Eventually, the July evaluation period came around. The Hoopers were playing at the Chicago Summer Jam in Romeoville, Illinois, during the first weekend.
“I looked at that as the time to wake some people up,” Griffin remembered, smiling.
Joe Henricksen, publisher of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, was on hand to watch the Hoopers in Romeoville. He said Griffin shot maybe a dozen 3-pointers during his junior season.
He made 18 at the Chicago Summer Jam.
“So now, all of a sudden, all the things you love about him,” Henricksen said, “which was his high-level athleticism and just a body that you could project at the college level — he’s going to have an unbelievable college body down the road — and now you combine it with, ‘OK, now this kid’s also knocking down 18 3s in three games?’ And then he continued to play like that throughout July — knocking down 3s.”
A prospect’s place in the recruiting world can change in a heartbeat, and that happened for Griffin. After one weekend, he no longer projected as an athletic, undersized big with a limited offensive game. Instead, with a long-range shot to draw defenders outside, colleges could project him as a stretch forward with the size and athleticism to defend two through four.
Two weekends later, in St. Louis, Griffin scored 42 points against EYBL powerhouse Howard Pulley on 17-of-25 shooting — and 9-of-14 from 3-point land. That’s when the Iowa State offer came.
“A coach that I know pretty well from the Big Ten called me,” Moore said, “and I was like, ‘Do you really think he’s good enough to play in the Big Ten?’ And he’s like, ‘He just made nine 3s and they were double-teaming him. He’s good to go in the Big Ten.'”
Now, Griffin is utilizing his expanded offensive arsenal to lead Hinsdale South on its state tournament quest. The Hornets just upset Proviso East, former NBA player Shannon Brown’s alma mater, last week. And Griffin netted 28 in a Jan. 12 win over Leyden.
Opponents are game-planning every week for Griffin, like they did last year. But they can’t stack the paint to bother him inside anymore. If they do, he’ll just drain a 3-ball.
So, teams are sending double, triple and quadruple (yes, quadruple) teams Griffin’s way, Moore said. He added that his talented senior always makes the right play — whether that’s dominating a 1-2-2 zone or finding the open man out of the swarming defense.
“He’s not scoring 30 points a game and forcing shots,” Moore said. “He’s working to get open, he’s doing different things and he’s progressing, for sure, out there.”
Griffin said Iowa State coaches told him he’ll play “whatever he can guard,” whether that’s the two (shooting guard), three (small forward) or four (power forward). Chances are he’ll play a little of all three. He’s actually pretty college-ready in terms of his size and his array of weapons on offense.
He plays a swing man role for Hinsdale South, so he’ll need time to adjust to the finer aspects of the college perimeter game. He’s also working on his off-hand dribbling, the one knock that he still carries as a four-star, top-100 prospect.
“Most recruits that come in are probably ahead of him in ball-handling, but I’ve also never seen a kid that can pull up and shoot with the touch that he’s got — anywhere from the NBA 3-point line to inside,” Moore said. “And especially with a kid who’s only been shooting those shots for 10 or 11 months. He’s got a lot of upside. Usually, kids like that have been shooting the ball really well since they were in seventh or eighth grade.”
If Griffin can refine his ball-handling as quickly as he developed a 3-point shot, he should be just fine.