Blake Griffin becomes the NBA’s reluctant new celebrity

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Blake Griffin wants to be just a regular guy.

Not on the court — there he is fully at home on the stage. There he wants to win. He wants to destroy you. And dunk on you ferociously.

But when your dunks electrify stadiums and bring life to a dormant franchise, when you have the kind of athletic gifts Griffin does, there is no being a regular guy off the court.

Especially not in Los Angeles, where people make a career out of latching on to the new, hot thing. Not in a city where Rihanna stops by outside the Clippers locker room to say “hi.” Especially not All-Star weekend, when his viral fame is about to explode into the national spotlight.

But Griffin comes from a different world than the bright lights of Hollywood. He’s an Oklahoma kid, born and raised.

“I miss my family and friends the most,” Griffin said. “Also I miss being just a regular guy – the relative anonymity that being from Oklahoma City brings.”

His ties to those Oklahoma roots were in evidence Wednesday, when media entered the Clipper locker room post game to see Griffin with his head in his hands, distraught. He had just learned an old friend from Oklahoma, a former teammate and Tulsa football player, had died from cancer.

Griffin may live near the beach now, but he is as connected to home as ever. He admits there are things to like about Los Angeles — the restaurants, the weather, the beach — but Griffin is not going Hollywood. He’s still an Oklahoma boy at heart, with a different makeup than many who gravitate to Los Angeles.

“I’ll never change who I am. ‘Celebrity’ is really not who I am,” Griffin said. “That does not motivate me at all. Wanting to be the best player that I can be and help my team win games is all the motivation I need.”

But make no mistake, he is a celebrity. He certainly is in NBA circles. The NBA is already a league of guys who won the genetic lottery, yet his NBA peers see Griffin as a freak of nature. Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James tweet about his dunks. On more than one occasion I’ve heard NBA players ask, as they are dressing after their game, if Griffin played that night because they wanted to catch his highlights.

His powerful, fearsome dunks have propelled him to being a huge favorite heading into Saturday night’s All-Star Dunk Contest. But staged dunks for this exhibition are different than throwing it down in a game.

“I don’t think any of that bothers him. I really don’t,” said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro of the difference. “It’s just his personality, he loves the stage, he’s a competitive kid and loves the challenge of it. This is just another thing for him to excel at.”

Griffin is much more than dunks, though. Other teams are learning that the hard way. He’s got a midrange game that is coming along. As the double teams have started to come earlier and harder this season, Griffin has shown a real patience with the ball and ability to make the correct pass out of the post.

“I am proud of my passing and I really think that my motor is helping out a lot this season,” Griffin said. “I have always prided myself on playing hard every play. I feel I have done that. I would like to improve on my outside shot to make it a consistent weapon and to become a better free throw shooter.”

Griffin was the No. 1 pick in 2009, but missed all of his first season in the NBA due to a stress fracture in his left kneecap, something he injured landing on a preseason dunk, in what seemed an innocuous play at the time. That meant he got to learn some things just watching the NBA up close. He was with the team at every game, in a suit just behind the bench.

But watching and actually playing through the physical and mental grind of a full NBA season are different things. He’s not sure if the physical or mental side is harder.

“Both are extremely hard adjustments,” Griffin said. “I have taken a lot of double teams and have been defended very physically. I am at the tail end of my first extended road trip and it is very tiring. It is hard to recall where exactly you are (literally) at times!”

Somehow you have no doubt Griffin will adjust to the physical on the court challenges.

Off the court, here’s to hoping he never really changes — we don’t need more celebrities in the NBA. We need more guys with a real passion for the game. We need more Griffins.

Raptors hire Spurs video coordinator, who just happens to be Kawhi Leonard friend

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Jeremy Castleberry played his high school ball in Riverside, California, on the same team as Kawhi Leonard. When Leonard went on to San Diego State for college, Castleberry went too and was a walk-on for that team.

When the Spurs drafted Leonard, it was not long before Castleberry was a video coordinator and on the staff in San Antonio. Now Leonard is a Raptor so… you know what’s coming. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN explained it well.

The Toronto Raptors are hiring San Antonio Spurs staffer Jeremy Castleberry — a close friend of Kawhi Leonard — to a position on their coaching staff, league sources told ESPN.

Castleberry has worked with Leonard as a Spurs staffer and played with Leonard in high school and at San Diego State, where he was a walk-on.

Is this alone going to keep Leonard a Raptor next summer when he’s a free agent? No. But this is how the game is played — make the star player you’re recruiting feel comfortable, wanted, a key part of everything. Bringing in a friend to a new city for him fits right into that plan.

The smart money is still on Leonard bolting next summer to go to Los Angeles, but if the Raptors are able to change his mind — ala Paul George — it will not be one big thing but a thousand little ones. And a lot of wins. But hiring Castleberry is a start.

Brandon Jennings signs to play in Russia next season

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Brandon Jennings has just never been the same since his 2015 torn Achilles. He hasn’t shot over 40 percent from the floor for a season since then, he hasn’t moved well defensivly, and he had a PER of 19.3 the season it was torn and it’s never been above 13.7 for a season since then. In the past couple of seasons he has played in the G-League and China, and he played 14 games at the end of the season for the Bucks last campaign.

This summer, there were no offers. He is now headed to Russia, according to multiple reports, including EuroHoops.net. He will play for Zenit St Petersburg.

He’s only 28 years old, there is time for him find a way to make his game fit into the NBA landscape again. He’s just not there yet, and maybe the opportunity in Russia will lead him there. If not, he’s still getting paid to play at a high level.

Some owners reportedly want access to mental health files of players

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If you read one thing NBA related today, it should be the first installment of Jackie MacMullan’s brilliant series at ESPN on the mental health of players and staffs in the NBA, and how the league is handling it. MacMullan not only got Kevin Love and Paul Pierce to open up about their challenges, but she also got into the challenges the league faces in confronting this issue head-on.

One such challenge: Owners wanting access to players mental health “files.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, players union executive director Michelle Roberts and their respective teams are reportedly working on a new mental health policy for the league. Privacy is going to be a big part of that. From MacMullan:

Yet there remain many obstacles to confront, chief among them the stigma attached to mental health that prompts many players to suffer in silence. The union also insists that mental health treatment be confidential, but some NBA owners, who in some cases are paying their players hundreds of millions of dollars, want access to the files of their “investments.” That is not, however, the league’s position. “The NBA fully supports protecting the confidentiality of players’ mental health information and, accordingly, committed to the players association that any mental health program we undertake would do so,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass says.

Confidentiality, says Love, has to be non-negotiable. Without it, he says, he never would have become comfortable enough to announce from that All-Star dais that he was seeking treatment.

Those files must be private. This is different from a torn knee ligament or sprained ankle (and on those we have HIPPA laws for good reason). For one, this is something more unpredictable in treating. Second, it comes back to the stigma of mental health issues and how the information about them might be used.

That stigma still exists, both in society and the NBA — McMullan gets into the players and their wives talking behind Love’s back All-Star weekend, and the players currently seeking treatment who do not want it public. The “real men don’t talk about this” mentality is everywhere, but it has fertile ground in professional sports locker rooms where players see themselves as invincible.

That mentality, that stigma will be the hardest thing to change in altering the culture of mental health issues in the NBA. There are no easy answers here. Does anyone think the owners who want access to those files wouldn’t use against the player in negotiations (never underestimate an owner’s effort to gain leverage)?

The players’ union will not allow that in whatever the framework is for the leagues’ new mental health policy. Nor should they.

Love, DeMar DeRozan, Royce White and others broke barriers stepping forward into the spotlight to discuss their challenges. But there are a lot of barriers still up, and a lot of work for both the NBA and society to do on this front. And privacy must be part of that.

Rebuilding Hawks add depth by signing Daniel Hamilton, Alex Poythress.

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ATLANTA (AP) — The rebuilding Atlanta Hawks have added depth by signing guard-forward Daniel Hamilton and forward Alex Poythress.

Poythress was signed to a two-way contract, so the former Kentucky player will split his time with the Hawks’ G League Erie team.

Hamilton is on a fully guaranteed one-year contract after impressing the Hawks playing for the Thunder Summer League team. He averaged 2 points in six games with Oklahoma City last season while on a two-way contract with the Thunder. He spent most of the season with the G League Oklahoma City Blue.

Poythress averaged 1 point in 25 games with Indiana last season. He began the season on a two-way contract.