Potential is something we talk about constantly on this site. It’s an ambiguous idea to be sure, but it’s also the defining characteristic of many of the NBA’s youngest, most promising talents and often — especially during the offseason — it applies just as well to entire franchises looking to turn their rosters into future contenders.
Potential, though, is also fleeting. In many cases, the realization comes slowly. Think of the draft pick that never seemed to produce as much as everyone thought he should, crescendoing with an uninspiring performance at Summer League. It’s like the tantalizing promise of an unhealthy college relationship in the summer where you fight all the time. In other cases, potential is interrupted much more quickly.
Just two months ago, the Orlando Magic were seemingly a franchise teeming with the attribute. The roster was loaded with high upside youngsters like Victor Oladipo, Mario Hezonja, and Aaron Gordon and with former head coach Scott Skiles stepping down, there was a sense of cautious optimism about the organization’s potential to rebuild around a core of developing prospects.
Then, the offseason happened. In a series of moves — chronicled extensively and excellently by ESPN’s Zach Lowe earlier this week — the Magic’s front office abandoned the potential of the future in favor of the present. Orlando traded Victor Oladipo and their 2016 lottery pick, Domantas Sabonis, to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka. The Magic also signed backup center Bismack Biyombo to a long-term deal, creating a crowded front court that will force their best young prospect to play out of position for the near future.
Gordon is the biggest loser in Orlando’s reshuffle regardless of his public optimism. Using Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), the 20-year old delivered one of the best performances of any youth in the NBA last season after carving out a role as a small-ball power forward. Gordon’s VORP of 1.8 was the second best mark for any player taken in the 2014 NBA Draft behind Denver’s Nikola Jokic and the third best mark in the league for a player 20-years old or younger behind Jokic and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns. In fact, by every advanced statistical measure (PER, win shares per 48 minutes, Box Plus/Minus, and VORP), Gordon was a more valuable player than Ibaka was last season and the latter played on a team with two of the best players in the league helping him get open looks.
Now, though, Gordon will be forced into unfamiliar territory playing as the Magic’s small forward. “The notion of Gordon as primarily a wing is almost shocking, and a massive organizational risk. He can’t shoot (yet), and he has very little NBA-level experience as a primary ball handler,” Lowe writes.
Indeed, the former Arizona Wildcat has posted uninspiring shooting numbers as a professional. Gordon has made fewer than 30 percent of his three-pointers over the course of his two seasons in the NBA and last year, he made just 32.1 percent of his 299 field goal attempts outside of five feet from the basket, according to NBA.com. His poor free throw shooting (68.1 percent) dating back to his time in Tucson suggests that there is little reason to be optimistic about his jump shot.
There should be a bit more hope surrounding Gordon’s potential as a ball-handler. He is a capable passer who averaged 2.5 assists per 36 minutes with a 10.3 percent assist rate last season, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be a go-to option playing from the small forward spot. The 20-year old operated as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll for just 37 possessions last season while Paul George — the player whom Vogel suggested will be the model for Gordon — did so 408 times. Gordon is also much more reliant on his teammates to create shot opportunities for him as 58.8 percent of his field goal makes last season were assisted and another 10.5 percent of his total attempts were putbacks from offensive rebounds, per NBA.com. For George, those numbers were 45.5 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively.
None of this is to say that Gordon can’t develop into an outside shooter (Draymond Green did it) or into a viable ball-handler, but his potential has manifested itself in different ways to date and Orlando would likely be better off accentuating those positives. His energy, effort, and athleticism make him an excellent offensive rebounder, he is very capable attacking larger opponents off the dribble in order to get to the free throw line, and his long arms help make him a versatile defender who can even protect the rim a bit. At the small forward spot, though, Gordon will be forced away from the basket more often on offense, guarded by quicker defenders, and required to matchup against perimeter players with more regularity.
It’s possible he’ll transition swimmingly, but the available evidence seems to suggest that Gordon’s potential as an athletic, efficient small-ball power forward is being squandered in favor of the franchise’s short-term gains all in one summer.