Hinsdale South's Griffin elevated his game

  • Hinsdale South's Zion Griffin (23) moves through the Willowbrook defense during boys basketball action in Villa Park.

      Hinsdale South's Zion Griffin (23) moves through the Willowbrook defense during boys basketball action in Villa Park. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Willowbrook's Sikander Zafar (5) defends against Hinsdale South's Zion Griffin (23) during boys basketball action in Villa Park.

      Willowbrook's Sikander Zafar (5) defends against Hinsdale South's Zion Griffin (23) during boys basketball action in Villa Park. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Daniel White/dwhite@dailyherald.comHinsdale South's Zion Griffin (23) calls for a pass during a 61-48 loss to Willowbrook in Villa Park.

    Daniel White/dwhite@dailyherald.comHinsdale South's Zion Griffin (23) calls for a pass during a 61-48 loss to Willowbrook in Villa Park.

 
 
Updated 3/1/2018 1:41 PM

Zion Griffin rose.

Above opponents and teammates -- and absolutely above the rim -- the Hinsdale South senior forward exploded down the court on a breakaway. Everyone knew what was next.

 

The home crowd in Darien came to its feet as Griffin rose for a thunderous two-handed dunk.

Griffin didn't know it at the time but that exclamation point on a win over Downers Grove South also turned out to be his 1,000th varsity point, a milestone requiring only 53 games.

The moment perfectly summed up the previous year for Griffin, who transformed himself from a good high school player into an elite college prospect committed to Iowa State University. From a low-to-mid-major flyer into a talent coveted by Power Five conferences.

Elite, in fact, is a word that began surrounding Griffin during the last year.

And rising? Well, that's just what Griffin does.

"From between last season and this season, I felt I had to get that motor going," Griffin said. "I want to be remembered here when I leave and I feel like my impact last year wouldn't get me there. I still had more stuff on the table."

Rising to the occasion for himself and his team this season, Griffin is the 2017-18 Daily Herald DuPage County All-Area Basketball Team Captain.

Responding

It's not like Griffin struggled his junior year, his first on varsity. An All-Area honoree, he averaged 17.3 points and 8.2 rebounds -- numbers he boosted this season to 21.1 points and 9 rebounds.

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Colleges, however, remained luke warm on him.

"I made a highlight video of him last year and sent it to a ton of schools," said Hinsdale South coach Brett Moore. "I did not get one response."

It became Griffin's mission to improve his game. Not just for himself but for the team he yearned to take deeper in the playoffs.

Between adding the ability to consistently knock down 3-pointers -- he hit 40 this season compared to attempting only five his entire junior year -- and the improved ability to rely on both hands, everything came together during an off-season playing for the Illinois Hoopers AAU team.

No longer did Griffin need to be a 6-foot-5 post player. Now he could play anywhere and thrive.

"He's always had the athleticism," Moore said. "He was kind of seen as a tweener until he showed he could shoot the 3. He developed a 3-point shot and he jumped up a level with colleges."

Mere months after hearing nothing on Griffin's junior video, Moore started getting calls from all corners of the country. The offers flooded in as Griffin and his mother, Santina Guyton, took the recruiting journey together.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Griffin boarded an airplane for the first time during his official visit to Ames and Iowa State University. It was his dream to play college basketball, and the reality often seemed unreal.

"It was a good experience for me and my family," Griffin said. "It was fun, but it was also a little stressful. We did all our research and learned as we went. It worked out."

Among an array of college scholarship offers rarely seen among past DuPage County prep standouts, Griffin ultimately committed in September to Iowa State to be part of an intriguing Chicagoland-heavy recruiting class that includes Simeon's Talen-Horton Tucker and Corliss' George Conditt.

The Cyclones emerged victorious from the other members of Griffin's list of final four schools -- Illinois State, Pittsburgh and Kansas. Yes, that Kansas. Griffin, though, felt at home in Ames.

"Colleges weren't going to recruit a 6-5 center," Griffin said. "I had to open up my arsenal a little bit and put the pieces of my game together. And it blossomed from there."

The next level

In the matter of a few months Griffin's college stock matched his level of play.

Zion Griffin rose.

"His improvement between his junior and senior year was a huge leap," said Willowbrook coach Chris Perkins. "If you can get 1,000 points in two years, that's pretty remarkable."

Griffin scored at will during Hinsdale South's February victory over Willowbrook.

He reached 39 points midway through the fourth quarter and, like the dunk on his 1,000th point, he didn't know he was so close to 40. Griffin never reached that milestone, choosing instead to do everything else necessary to secure a 69-63 victory.

Hinsdale South went on to win a second straight West Suburban Gold title and takes a 21-6 record into Friday's Class 4A Hinsdale South regional title game. A victory there gives the program an unprecedented third straight regional championship.

Griffin not only transformed himself the last two years. He also helped transform the Hornets.

"He went from not being able to dribble at all with his right hand to being one of the best players in the state," said senior teammate Robert Barnes. "I saw his work ethic every day so I could see it coming."

Griffin knows the work can't stop at the next level. He eventually aims to develop into an NBA-caliber player, but that's a long way off. He's been told by Iowa State coaches that he'll play where he's capable of defending and, for someone who's only been playing basketball since the seventh grade, it'll be a steep learning curve.

But he's prepared to meet the challenge, rising every step of the way.

"I want to make all my weaknesses stronger," Griffin said. "I want a scouting report on me to not know what to do."

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