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November 3, 2008

Preseason story line No. 8: Griffin returns

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 story lines for the 2008-09 season and will be revealing one daily. At No. 8 we take a look at Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, who decided to stay in school for his sophomore season rather than enter the NBA draft.

Maybe Blake Griffin's decision to return to Oklahoma shouldn't have come as such a surprise.

In the years of the one-and-done, freshmen who are expected to be taken early in the NBA draft (and some who aren't) leave with predictable regularity.

Not Griffin, though. The Sooners forward had a chance to be a lottery pick, but unlike most others in his position he returned to college for his sophomore season.

But Griffin hasn't been one to make the predictable decision, anyway. Major programs all over the country wanted the 6-foot-10, 251-pound Griffin out of Oklahoma Christian School in Oklahoma City. He wasn't as highly regarded as Michael Beasley, Derrick Rose or others, but he would be eventually.

Instead of taking the safe road, Griffin signed with Oklahoma a program that was still awaiting word on sanctions from the NCAA after the transgressions of former coach Kelvin Sampson. Oklahoma did not face major sanctions, but the NCAA handed the Sooners scholarship and recruiting limitations.

"He's a unique kid," third-year coach Jeff Capel said. "He's a kid that doesn't follow the norm. He doesn't follow what everyone else is doing. He makes decisions based on what he thinks are best for him."

The decision best for Griffin was naturally a decision that benefits Oklahoma, too.

Griffin returns to a team with three other returning starters plus five-star freshman point guard Willie Warren. The return of Griffin, the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, makes Oklahoma a strong contender in the conference and a threat to advance deep in the NCAA tournament.

"(I returned for) the opportunity to play on a team like we have with these expectations and hopefully fulfilling those expectations and personally to better myself as a player, mature myself and be a little more prepared," Griffin said.

If Griffin improves, that's a scary thought for the rest of the league.

Griffin was one of the most imposing players in the Big 12 last year despite missing two games and playing hurt because of knee injuries. Still, Griffin averaged 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds. In a game against Kansas State's Beasley, the No. 2 pick in the draft, Griffin went toe-to-toe with his counterpart in the frontcourt, finishing with 27 points and 14 rebounds.

Expect more of that this year, Capel said.

"He knows how to be more prepared for a season," Capel said. "I think he's grown a little bit, if that's possible. Because he's in better shape, he's a little bit more explosive, and I think he's a better basketball player."

Griffin's return should give Oklahoma confidence entering the season and with good reason.

The Sooners were 23-12 overall and 9-7 in the Big 12 before a 30-point loss to Louisville in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Griffin and Capel simmered for two weeks after the loss to the Cardinals before the freshman told his coach and teammates he was going to stay in school. It was a chance to return to a veteran team and possibly the last chance for Griffin to play alongside his older brother, Taylor Griffin.

Taylor Griffin, a senior, is one of the returning starters at forward. He averaged 6.5 points and 4.9 rebounds. Blake acknowledged this might be the last time the two are able to play together.

"It'll be great," Taylor Griffin said. "We're looking forward to it. It makes this year kind of like a bonus. We have an opportunity to do some big things. It could be a fairy-tale ending."

Blake Griffin's return to the team will also ease the pressure on Warren, the highest-ranked freshman in the Big 12.

Oklahoma's guard play was spotty last season. Veterans Austin Johnson and Tony Crocker are back, but Warren gives the backcourt added explosiveness. The presence of Griffin should help Warren ease into the spotlight.

"Willie is not looked at to be the guy," Capel said. "When Blake came here as a freshman he was anointed by everyone as the guy. We need Willie to come in and be a big part, but we don't necessarily need him to be the guy. I think that's going to help him."

While Griffin is projected to be a top pick in the 2009 draft, there's no guarantee he leaves then either. He has surprised people before.

"Those were the decisions that felt right," Griffin said. "My parents always told me to be a leader not a follower. The easy decisions are not always the right ones. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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