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On Sale At Newsstands Feb. 14!
Taylor Made
Griffin a perfect fit for Sooners’ blue-collar approach

With a 3.7 grade point average in his first semester of college and his sights set on pre-med studies, Taylor Griffin appears headed for the white-collar world some day. But the 6-foot-7 Oklahoma Christian School product is quick to admit what brings him true happiness, at least for the moment, is learning his blue-collar role with Kelvin Sampson’s Oklahoma Sooners.

“I want to go as far as basketball will take me,” Griffin said recently. “If it’s four years here and gone, that’s all right. But I’m going to go as far as I possibly can.”

Sampson doesn’t doubt the talented freshman could be playing in a pro arena some day. But what excites the veteran Sooner boss is the next four years that Griffin has planned on spending in Norman.

“He’s improving by leaps and bounds,” Sampson said. “The thing about Taylor is he’s playing behind two great college players in Taj (Gray) and Kevin (Bookout). Probably the best thing for him right now is playing against those guys every day in practice.”

While Gray and Bookout are currently dominating — the two were first and second in scoring through the middle of January and had led the Sooners in scoring and rebounding in every game from December on — Griffin is busy absorbing.

The daily practice sessions are intense — as all Sampson practices are — and it’s these afternoon exercises that the Sooner coach really thinks are benefiting the 19-year-old.

“I’m excited about Taylor. He’s going to be a really, really good college player here,” Sampson said. “He has a great understanding of how to play. He plays aggressive. His body and his athleticism are his big strengths right now.”

All of it is true. Griffin’s 232-pound frame is a powerful one — he’s just 27 pounds and six pounds lighter than Bookout and Gray, respectively — and he’s getting stronger every day. But Sampson’s words are also a nice way of saying the big guy’s got a lot to learn.

Coached by his father in high school, Griffin possesses a basketball I.Q. few players his age are fortunate enough to have. But 99 percent of the freshmen who are lucky enough to see game time that first year aren’t exactly sure of what they’re doing out there all the time.

“I’m out there trying to think what I’m supposed to do, trying not to mess up and trying to go hard at the same time,” Griffin said. “I think once I get a better feel for it it will be a little easier.”

Griffin had a firm, if not commanding, grasp on the high school game. Even playing for tiny, private Oklahoma Christian School, Griffin was able to turn heads and spin defenders wherever he went.

The first team All-State selection averaged 18.9 points, 10.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.3 blocked shots to help OCS to a Class 3A state title and himself to Gatorade Oklahoma Player of the Year honors as a senior.

In fact, OCS was 53-2 Griffin’s final two seasons and undefeated in those state tournaments. Griffin garnered state tournament MVP honors both of those years.

But even with the big numbers, Griffin still couldn’t shake the private school tag.
His solid frame assured he would be recruited heavily, with Washington State, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Charlotte and Marquette all courting him heavily.

But it wasn’t what Sampson saw Griffin do in March that sold him. What turned Sampson’s eye was what he saw in June and July.

“You have to first of all be a tough kid and you have to be a worker and like to play,” Sampson said of those players invited into his system. “The thing that really appealed to me about Taylor was I didn’t see him play a lot in high school. I saw him play a lot in the summer in the AAU circuits. The better players Taylor played against the better he played.”

Sampson’s squads have averaged 26 wins the last six seasons. The last eight seasons the Sooners have posted 20 or more wins and over Sampson’s 11 seasons in Norman, Oklahoma has punched its NCAA ticket 10 times.

“All that’s fine and good, but you can’t do that over the length of time we’ve done it year after year after year without having great kids,” Sampson said. “Taylor is in the 99.9 percentile of all that.”

You’d be hard pressed to name a single blue chip signee from those teams.

Sampson says Griffin is cut out of the same cloth as guys like Ernie Abercrombie and Johnny Gilbert, both former players who worked their way into the hearts of the Sooner faithful and into the OU record books.

Nationally recognized for his knack of squeezing the last drop of talent out of players many college coaches normally pass by, Sampson fully expects Taylor to be one of those kids that Sooner fans remember years from now.

“Taylor’s never going to be a player of the year candidate in this league, but he’s going to be a player on our team that can help us win championships and that’s what I saw in him,” Sampson said.

Griffin digs that and he’s more than ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work.

“Just from watching Oklahoma basketball, for as long as I remember it’s been (about) hard work,” he said. “Coach Sampson’s teams always seem to play harder than anybody they play against. I don’t think they always have better athletes than teams they play, but a lot of times they beat those teams. They play harder. They rebound, they do all the dirty work, all the little things right. That’s kind of what defines this program.

“I really have no problem with that.”

Heading into conference play, Griffin’s number have been by no means eye-catching. His points per game were just under three. while his rebounds each night were just over that mark.
He’s confident that he’s learning and he’s also sure his best days are ahead of him.

“Those guys are playing well,” Griffin said of OU’s front court tandem of Gray and Bookout. “It’s not like I’m going to come in and outplay them. I’ve got to be ready to come in and keep the level of play up to the level they’ve already set. I’ve learned a lot of things from them and I think this year has been really good for me. It gets frustrating because I can’t get out there and because they’re out there, but this year will be good for me playing behind them.”

The fact that both Gray and Bookout are seniors isn’t lost on Griffin either. Even though the basketball competition may not be the best at private schools, the math program is usually a pretty good one.

“Next year, especially with Taj and Bookout being gone, Longar Longar and I will be the main post players,” he said. “I expect a lot out of me and out of Longar next year. I’m going to bust my butt this summer trying to improve. I kind of have something to measure myself against playing against Bookout and Taj. I expect to come out next year and do some damage.”

(Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the January issue of Sooner Spectator Magazine.)