BLAKE GRIFFIN is hearing voices. At least he's trying to. As a December wind howls outside, the sophomore power forward sits in a folding chair at the edge of Oklahoma's practice floor, squinting in concentration, trying to conjure villainy. After a moment, his voice changes from his usual low conversational murmur, and he is suddenly the Joker in the movie The Dark Knight. "Do you want to know how I got my scars?" he asks menacingly. "My father was a drinker, and a fiend." You can practically see the smeared red-and-white clown makeup on the late Heath Ledger's face, and the knife glinting in his hand.
The next moment it's summer in Beijing, and as Griffin does Michael Phelps marveling over his new-found popularity—"I got on Facebook and I had, like, 4,000 friend requests and I was like, Wow, that's really crazy!"—you could swear you had just caught a whiff of chlorine.
Griffin's repertoire includes his teammates and coaches too. When he's not borrowing their voices, he's borrowing their stuff. He delights in relocating the contents of a locker and then sitting back to see how long it takes his victim to notice. "One day I saw him wearing this hat and I said, 'Hey, I have a hat just like that!'" recalls freshman guard Willie Warren. "Of course, it was my hat he was wearing."
Griffin's older brother, Taylor, a senior forward for the Sooners, says two words sum up his sibling: aggressive and goofy. It's not a combination seen at the top of the NBA draft board very often, but it's likely to be this June, because Griffin, a 6'10", 250-pound banger, can do impressions of well-known people on the court too. One Eastern Conference scout, who calls Griffin "the best player in the draft," says that he has "the quickness of Amar� Stoudemire and the strength of Carlos Boozer."
That combination had him averaging 22.0 points and a nation's-best 13.4 rebounds a game at week's end for the sixth-ranked Sooners (17--1, 3--0 in the Big 12). Griffin, who has 14 double doubles, is so physically dominant—he plays "with the most force of anyone in college basketball," says Utah coach Jim Boylen—that most teams' strategy is to double- and triple-team him or foul him constantly, or both. (Though he has improved a bit since last year, Griffin has made only 60.3% of his attempts from the line this season.) Some opposing players just resort to cheap shots to stop him. In the second half of Oklahoma's 73--72 win over USC in Norman on Dec. 4, Trojans forward Leonard Washington hit Griffin below the belt, earning a flagrant foul and an ejection. Nine days later, in the Sooners' 70--52 victory over Utah, Utes guard Luka Drca tripped Griffin as both were running upcourt, a move that earned Drca an intentional foul and a two-game suspension from Boylen.
"To Blake's credit, he hasn't retaliated," says Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel. "Last year, there probably would have been some sort of confrontation; it might have taken him five minutes to calm down. That might be his biggest area of improvement."
Griffin spent the summer working on increasing his range, strength and explosiveness and on becoming the "puppetmaster." That's a concept San Francisco fitness guru Frank Matrisciano discussed often in the almost two months Blake and his brother spent with him. "Teams want me to do something stupid," says Blake. "You want to get to the point where nothing affects you; you control them."
He has kept his emotions in check on the court without losing any of his trademark intensity. "He's like two different people, on the court and off," says Capel. "Off the court he's laid-back, a jokester. When we do certain competitive things in practice, he becomes really different. It's scary sometimes. It could be a four-minute scrimmage, a rebounding drill, a shooting competition. If he misses shots or his team loses, he gets disgusted and wants to do it again. He always plays like he has something to prove."
In his mind he does. Griffin has been driven his whole life by a desire to measure up, first to his brother, then later to the flock of superstars—including Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose—in his recruiting class. He admits that as a relative unknown from Oklahoma, a football state, he felt eclipsed at the 2007 McDonald's All-American Game in Louisville, even though he won the slam-dunk contest. "I did feel a little overlooked," he says. "But I wasn't mad, because those guys are great and they deserved the respect they got. The good thing is it didn't allow me to become complacent. I wanted to be better, I wanted to keep working until I was with those other guys."
GROWING UP in Oklahoma City, Blake constantly set challenges for himself, asking his family members, Do you think I can jump that fence? Do you think I can run from here to there in 10 seconds? Time me. "Everything Blake did, he made it into a game, a challenge," says his mom, Gail, a former high school business teacher who homeschooled Blake and Taylor through seventh grade. Blake would rush through his schoolwork and then burst outside to play. Recess always became some kind of competition with Taylor. "It could be anything—a footrace, tag—and it would always end in a fight, and most of the time it was because I lost," says Blake. "I was always chasing Taylor, trying to keep up with him. He was three years older, so he was bigger, stronger and faster. I was always one step behind." He adds, smiling, "That's why I've built up so much aggression toward him."