Rookie has Utah Jazz fans dizzy over his aerial game

Show time in the National Basketball Association this season is whenever 22 -year-old rookie guard Darrell Griffith of the Utah Jazz decides he wants to shoot. This guy plays so much of his game in the air that there are those in the Defense Department who think he should be registered as a satellite.

Griffith, who paved Louisville's road to the NCAA playoff championships last year with a series of multiple 20-point games, simply doesn't have any off-nights when it comes to shooting. In his first game ever as a pro, against the Portland Trail Blazers, he dazzled the crowd with 26 points.

Darrell doesn't have to get position inside to find the basket, requires only a split second to get his shot away, and reportedly has a vertical jump of 48 inches. Only Michelangelo, in his prime, brushed more ceilings.

Griffith, center Joe Barry Carroll of the Golden State Warriors, and forward Michael Brooks of the San Diego Clippers are the leading candidates this season for NBA Rookie of the Year.

What has given Darrell the edge so far is his built-in sense of theater, plus the fact that because of him the Jazz aren't going from the Charleston to the waltz late in games the way they did last season. After 24 games last year the team (without Griffith) was 4-20; this year that record read 13-11.

With Darrell's offense to worry about, opponents are no longer able to double-team forward Adrian Dantley, the team's top shooter last season, with a 28-point average. The result is that Dantley, with more to room to roam inside this year, is already being measured for George Gervin's NBA scoring crown.

In fact, it's a rare night when Griffith and Dantley between them don't pour in at least 50 points.

Utah will never be a contender, of course, until it finds itself an intimidating center who can play defense, block shots, jam the middle, and control both backboards. But at least the Jazz can go into every game now knowing that they have enough firepower to win.

"Offensively pro basketball has been exactly what I thought it would be," Griffith explained. "For several years I've been playing against some of the NBA's biggest names in summer pickup games, so there haven't been any surprises. Anyone who is quick and willing to run can score in this game.

"Unless you've got a big mobile center who can shoot, block out, and open things up for his teammates inside, you can forget about any easy layups," he continued. "But if you've got range and accuracy the way I do, if you don't try to force stuff, and if you're willing to take what the defense gives you, it's no big deal to average 20 points a game."

Defensively Griffith is where the computer was when Confucius was still figuring out the score on an abacus. The league's top guards light up Darrell frequently on defense; take him into the pivot and shoot over him; and know the only way he can stop their drives to the basket is to commit a foul.

"A big part of Griffith's defensive problems is that he never had a training camp with us this season," Utah Coach Tom Nissalke explained. "During the time when he should have been learning our system and how to defend against opposing players, he was too busy with our front office trying to hammer out a contract.

"I'm not blaming him for what happened," Nissalke continued. "He was the No. 2 pick in last year's college player draft, and the guy was trying to get his future set financially. But once a season starts, the conditions under which a coach can teach are a lot more limited than they are in training camp."

Asked exactly how he was working with Griffith, Nissalke replied: "Basically what I've done with Darrell is to go back to fundamentals -- just as though he'd never played defense before. What we're dealing with here is a kid whose primary responsibility in college was offense, not defense.

"You had a situation where his coach didn't want his best shooter fouling out by being too aggressive on defense, and this happens at a lot of schools. But Griffith is smart enough to know what his problems are and he has the talent to correct them. He's not just going through the motions with me. Eventually he will be a good defensive player."

So far Griffith has put extra fans into the stands everywhere the Jazz have played on the road. What is surpising is that in the early balloting for the NBA Western Conference All-Star squad he has been running ahead of both Magic Johnson and George Gervin.

Those long shots of Darrell's seem to be paying off, even if they do come down with snow on them.

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