The process of Aaron Gordon’s 3-pointers is even more encouraging than the result

SAN ANTONIO, TX - OCTOBER 10: Aaron Gordon
SAN ANTONIO, TX - OCTOBER 10: Aaron Gordon /

Aaron Gordon has never been a consistent 3-point shooter. Despite the fact that he has logged nearly half of his career minutes playing small forward, he failed to shoot over 30.0 percent from the perimeter in each of his first three seasons with the Magic. Last year was Gordon’s best shooting season yet, and he converted just 28.8 percent of his 3.3 3-point attempts per game. Of the 169 qualified 3-point shooters last season, only Marcus Smart (28.3 percent) shot worse from the perimeter.

Based on those numbers, there’s good reason to believe Gordon’s hot start to this season isn’t sustainable. For example, Gordon finds himself behind only three power forwards — Lauri Markkanen, Ryan Anderson, Carmelo Anthony — in 3-pointers made per game (2.6) thus far. That puts him on pace to make over 200 3-pointers this season, a mark only 11 players surpassed last season. Furthermore, Gordon currently trails only Brandon Paul in 3-point accuracy. It’s possible Gordon has improved as a shooter since last season, but such a jump is almost unprecedented.

What’s important for Gordon is he at least proves himself as a threat from the perimeter, and that much seems to be achievable. Beyond taking and making 3-pointers in greater volume, he looks more comfortable spacing the floor this season due to some changes in his shooting form. And now that he’s playing his natural position as a full-time power forward, it sets him up well to have the breakout season he has long seemed destined for.

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It’s not as though Gordon’s shot was broken last season. He actually looked more comfortable shooting 3-pointers than he did the season before. The problem is he lacked the consistency needed to be an accurate shooter. As you can see in the image below, Gordon would more often than not bring the ball close to his forehead before releasing, thereby creating a 45 degree angle instead of a 90 degree angle.

Doing so would sometimes push Gordon’s elbow out, which would force his palm to rotate while he was shooting or move his palm to the side of the ball rather than underneath. Either way, it made it hard for him to shoot the same way every time.

The combination gave Gordon a slingshot form, which became more pronounced whenever he made a move off the dribble. While pull-ups are a big part of Gordon’s game — 28.3 percent of his attempts in 2016-17 — he posted an effective field goal percentage of 34.7 in those situations last season. Most of those off-the-dribble attempts could be broken down into three distinctive parts: the dribble to setup the pull-up, the pull-up to get the ball in his shooting pocket and then the release.

The second and third part is what caused the slight hitch in Gordon’s form.

Gordon has since eliminated that hitch almost entirely by bringing the ball in front of and above his head as opposed to towards his head — the difference between a 45 degree angle and a 90 degree angle. The result is a much smoother jump shot that he can get off quicker and with greater consistency off the dribble.

The encouraging signs for Gordon’s long-term development is he shoots the same way from the 3-point line. He was a capable shooter last season when left wide open (35.1 percent) but he made only 16.9 percent of his open 3-point attempts. He was just as bad whenever he had to put the ball on the floor before taking a 3-pointer, making 23.5 percent of his attempts following one or more dribble.

The scouting report on Gordon was therefore simple — back off of but don’t completely forget about him on the perimeter and give him space to pull-up off the dribble. It’s why his form on this 3-point attempt against the Pelicans on Oct. 30…

…compared to this 3-point attempt from the 2016-17 season…

…is a step in the right direction for Gordon. He is already a nightmare for opposing forwards to match up with because of his speed, strength and athleticism. If they can no longer contain him by backing off of him like they did last season — Gordon’s wide open 3-point attempts per game increased when the Magic moved him to power forward — because his new shot form opens the door for him to be a more consistent threat from the perimeter, those other tools become far more pronounced.

Gordon showcased it all in his 41 point performance against the Nets on Oct. 24. With four other shooters surrounding him in the half court, it’s easy for him to make an impact on the game by attempting nothing but open 3-pointers, pushing the pace in transition and taking advantage when teams ignore him by cutting to the basket. He’s proven the ability to do two of those things well in the past, and the 3-point shot is what will unlock his full potential as a potential All-Star in the coming years.

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Whether or not Gordon reaches that level this season remains to be seen. Following two disappointing seasons riddled with injuries, though, it’s good to see him add to his game in a way that will help the Magic go from a lottery team to a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. It couldn’t come at a better time for him, either, considering Gordon is due for a new contract in the offseason. An athletic power forward who can make 3-pointers at a decent rate in today’s NBA will obviously fetch a lot more in restricted free agency than one who can’t.