Sitting courtside, AJ Griffin couldn’t help it. His mind wandered, picturing himself on the NBA floor throwing dunks and hitting long jumpers.
At the time, he was only in the third grade, accompanying his father, Adrian, an assistant coach in the NBA.
“Going to games, you see things behind the scenes,” Griffin told The Post in a phone interview. “Just seeing it early made my dream come alive. Being surrounded by basketball throughout your childhood, it’s hard not to fall in love with basketball.”
Soon that dream will come true, and it may happen close to home in Ossining, New York. Griffin, a 6-foot-6 guard considered one of the best shooters in the draft, could fall to the Knicks at age 11, and they’ve shown a lot of interest in him. The Knicks brought him in for individual practice, attended his pro day in Los Angeles and have spent a lot of time investigating him, according to sources. Also, his father, now a senior assistant with the Raptors, previously worked with Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau with the Bulls.
Griffin is familiar with several players on the team, particularly RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin. He met Barrett several times and played youth basketball with Toppin, a Westchester native like Griffin.
“It would be great to play for your hometown,” Griffin said. “I played at MSG twice last year, and it’s an experience like no other.”
Griffin is one of the most discussed prospects ever invited to the green room, a projected lottery pick once considered a top-10 lock. According to several scouts, there are questions about his consistency and athleticism relative to his injury history.
He had back problems as a sophomore in high school, dislocated his left knee the following year, and sprained his right knee before this season at Duke. He was a part-time starter for the Blue Devils this year, averaging 10.4 points and 3.9 rebounds while shooting 44.7 percent from 3-point range.
“There is some concern about injuries,” said a scout. “But he’s 6-for-6 with a chiseled frame and he shot 45 percent from 3.”
The counterpoint to the criticism is that Griffin was on a loaded team that asked him to play a particular role as a space shooter on the floor, Duke assistant coach Chris Carrawell said. He had some monster games: 27 points in a win over North Carolina, 21 in an ACC Tournament semifinal over Miami, 18 in the Elite Eight against Arkansas. Griffin missed a senior season in high school due to COVID-19, and this year he dealt with an early knee injury that slowed his progress.
“Everything has its time and you just keep working,” Griffin said. “I’ve been seeing progress.”
He added, “I feel like I can show a lot more [than I did in college].”
ESPN college basketball analyst and draft guru Fran Fraschilla didn’t see the same athleticism in Griffin at Duke as he did in high school, but he attributed some of that to injuries, and he sees an extremely high ceiling for Griffin, who didn’t it becomes 19 until August.
“He definitely has everything that you would think you would need to make him a very good NBA player,” Fraschilla said. “I think he’s going to take a couple of years.”
Griffin has been in the game his entire life and, as the youngest of three brothers, was pushed at a young age. For years, he would lose to his older brother, Alan, and his sister, Aubrey. They also played Division I college basketball, Alan at Illinois and Syracuse and Aubrey currently at Connecticut. He forced him to work harder and instilled in him a competitive spirit.
Griffin was regarded as one of the top prospects in the country as a freshman at Archbishop Stepinac and was one of the most coveted recruits nationally when he committed to Duke. He has won at every level, helping Stepinac win a state championship as a freshman and the city title game the following year, contributing to the Final Four at Duke last season and winning a gold medal with the USA Basketball U-16 team at FIBA Americas while in high school.
It has all led up to this point, Thursday night’s draft at Barclays Center, when Griffin will become the first Stepinac alum to be a first-round pick and join his father in the NBA.
“It will be one like no other,” he said. “Sharing that moment with my family will be just an amazing moment and it will definitely be a memory I won’t forget.”