TWO-AND-A-HALF years ago, when Blake Griffin told new Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel that he wanted to play for the Sooners, Capel thought he was being Punk'd. "I thought Ashton Kutcher was going to jump out at me," he says. When he realized Griffin, a known prankster, was serious, Capel was ecstatic. "Besides the birth of my daughter, I don't know that I've been happier," he says. "I felt like, Now I have a piece to build around."
Imagine Capel's joy last spring when his star forward decided to stay another year in Norman, even though he was projected as an NBA lottery pick. Griffin, whose thunderous dunks and ferocious rebounds belie a graceful finesse below the rim—he passes, handles the ball and runs the floor well enough to push the break—averaged almost a double double last year as Oklahoma went 23--12, a seven-win improvement over the previous season. "He's a guy you have to game-plan for," says Capel. "I don't think you can guard him single coverage. At least no one did last year."
Griffin is intense and emotional on the court, but off it "he's like a big kid," says Capel. Besides pulling pranks—he has hidden assistants' watches and switched the contents of teammates' lockers—Griffin has developed into a skilled mimic. "He can imitate anybody," says Capel, one of the people Griffin reportedly impersonates best. (Griffin's repertoire also includes swimmer Michael Phelps.) "I focus on the way people talk," says Griffin, who grew up in Oklahoma City. "It's all about voice and timing."
Griffin considers timing important in basketball, too, which is why he skipped the draft in June. "I wanted to get better prepared for when I do make the jump, and this could be my last chance to play with Taylor," says Griffin, speaking of his brother and role model, a senior forward who is the team's second-leading returning rebounder. "We have a chance to have a great team."
He's not the only one who thinks so: For the first time in Big 12 history, league coaches have picked Oklahoma to be the top team in the conference.
Helping the Griffin brothers try to live up to those expectations will be four imposing frontline newcomers, including transfers Ryan Wright, a forward from UCLA, and juco swingman Juan Pattillo. "Anytime you have so many new guys, there's a learning curve," says Capel. "But we are bigger and more athletic now."
The Sooners have plenty to motivate them, including a 30-point loss to Louisville in the second round of last year's NCAA tournament and a promise from their star. When reporters asked Blake Griffin to do his impression of Capel on camera, he demurred. "I'll do it," he said, "but not until we win the national championship."
*HIGH SCHOOL STATS
‚Ä†2006--07 STATS (WITH UCLA)
Mississippi Valley State*
Virginia Commonwealth (in Oklahoma City)
Maryland Eastern Shore
*NIT Season Tip-Off (also Davidson and James Madison; winner advances to New York City)
The upset-minded Rams were the team that shocked Duke in the 2007 NCAA tournament and may have a surprise for Sooners coach Jeff Capel, who used to work at VCU.
Jeff Capel (3rd year)
Big 12 record
Blake Griffin has the potential to make Oklahoma the Big 12 champion, writes Luke Winn. Can he handle the pressure?
Good Impression Griffin is a gifted mimic, but his power and grace on the court is inimitable.