Hawks rookie wing AJ Griffin credits faith for guiding him to his dream

Atlanta Hawks draft pick AJ Griffin, the 16th overall pick, answers questions during a news conference at the Hawks' practice facility. (Miguel Martinez / Miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com )

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Atlanta Hawks draft pick AJ Griffin, the 16th overall pick, answers questions during a news conference at the Hawks' practice facility. (Miguel Martinez / Miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com )

Ahead of Thursday’s NBA draft, the Hawks knew they wanted players who not only had skills but also fit the culture of the team.

So, as they scouted rookie wing AJ Griffin, whom they drafted in the first round, the Hawks learned that the Duke product had the shooting skills as well as the mental strength to fight through challenging situations. The 18-year-old sharpshooter has had his share of challenges that steered him toward a stronger relationship with his faith.

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The Griffin family always has had a solid relationship with Christianity. His paternal grandfather was a minister, and his stepmother’s family had deep ties to ministries. But the new Hawks wing never felt any pressure from them to declare where he stood. His father, Adrian, and stepmother, Kathy, offered guidance, sure, but they allowed him to reach a decision in his own time.

“When he came to live with us, he was just really intrigued,” Kathy said. “And he saw some changes in his life, through prayer, through reading his Bible, and just putting what the Bible says into play. And he saw real life changes, and he was like, ‘OK, well, this works. This is good. This works. OK, I’m cool with this.’ And so then he just continued to develop it on his own. We just kind of guided him to that path and let him discover for himself how good God is.”

That journey began for Griffin around the time he was 12 years old. His father and mother, Audrey Sterling, were amid a divorce, and the younger Griffin turned to his faith to get through the difficulties of that upheaval.

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“I think my parents divorcing at a young age and just stuff like that, it’s just part of my testimony just be able to give it all to God,” Griffin said. “I think when you’re just at a broken place in your life, God puts all the pieces back together. And it’s just amazing. And you know it’s not by your power or your will, it’s by his grace. And so, I think, it’s, it’s just amazing, and I’ll never forget what God did for me.”

That relationship with his faith grew stronger as he dealt with injuries in high school, and when Griffin turned 16 he decided to get baptized to reaffirm his commitment. That’s what gave him the strength to get through the recovery process and motivated him to work harder to achieve his dream of playing in the NBA.

“Yeah, that’s definitely my faith in God,” Griffin said. “Just be able to rely on him in those moments; I wouldn’t be here today without him. So through those moments, this wasn’t a fearful thing, it’s more of just this chance to grow my faith in God. So just to be able to come out of that, I feel like, you know, God sees that to set me up for a better future. I feel like now I just have a chip on my shoulder, and it just feels like, I want to work out even more to prove like that I can still belong.”

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While Griffin may not have been the flashiest player to come out of this year’s draft, he was one of this class’ best shooters. He made 44.7% of his shots from long range, which has left the Hawks’ front office excited for his potential.

They also plan to continue fine-tuning his ability to attack the rim, while developing his capabilities on defense.

For now, Hawks coach Nate McMillan has encouraged Griffin to get his feet wet and get ready for next month’s Summer League. Griffin, as well as second-round pick Tyrese Martin, will have plenty of competition ahead of them in their quest to earn minutes on the floor.

“They will have an opportunity,” McMillan said. “And it’s good to have competition, competing for opportunities. You know, we still have guys at the position that they play with Kevin Huerter and Bogey (Bogdan Bogdanovic). Those guys being our twos and threes, and you know, you bring in guys like Martin and AJ that will get that opportunity. But they know that they’re going to have to earn it.”

Training camp is still a couple of months away, though. So Griffin will take advantage of the Hawks’ practice facility to work on his game and also find time to settle into Atlanta.

It won’t be too much of an adjustment for him, and he said he saw some similarities with Durham, N.C., such as the food and the weather.

He’ll be on the hunt for a new place to go to church with the help of his stepmom, Kathy. She, as well as her sister, usually scope out a few options for Griffin in the cities that he has traveled to for games.

“Everywhere I’ve been, I found something,” Griffin said. “So I’ll definitely (be) looking for one in Atlanta and one that feels like, you know, home. Just feels like it’s the right place for me where God wants me to be to make an impact whether, you know, just like be able to speak there or share my testimony with others, too.”