The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.
I’ve long (since 2013 when I saw him as a freshman at the University of Arizona) had a fascination with Aaron Gordon because he appears to have all the necessary tools of a potential NBA All-Star and a unique one at that. He’s of appropriate length with mega-bounce. He has broad shoulders with a sturdy frame and world class lateral flexibility. He’s a willing teammate and at just 23-years-old (as of Sep. 16), has a high ceiling for improvement. Yet, within this four-year body of NBA work, I don’t see an arrow pointing up and I don’t see a plateau as much as I see the need for a course correction.
In his four years with the Magic, Gordon’s had four head coaches: Jacque Vaughn for 52 games, James Borrego for 30, Scott Skiles for 82, and Frank Vogel for 164. Entering his fifth season with yet another new coach in Steve Clifford, Gordon’s young career has been marked by inconsistent leadership. Even Vogel, the coach he had for two years of losing basketball, struggled to figure out if Gordon was a small or power forward. Consistency does not know thy name, Aaron Gordon.
Despite all the Orlandoan coaching tumult, Gordon has exhibited steady improvement, most notably on his 3-point shot. The last three seasons, he’s doubled his makes-per-game from 0.5 to one to two in 2017-18 which was good enough for top-50 in per-game volume. The flip side of his increased volume is that, of any player who made at least two 3s/game, Gordon was next-to-last in efficiency (sorry Timmy Hardaway) at 33 percent. The flip of the flip is that 33 percent is the best he’s ever shot from deep and he did it while predominantly playing the four spot which should be leverageable to keep defenses honest.
This Orlando team, primarily made up of the former regime’s (Rob Henningan) players, was (and still is) bereft of playmakers. Elfrid Payton, Shelvin Mack, and DJ Augustin, for all of their relative competence as pro basketball players, are positionally below average. Their wings (Evan Fournier and Jonathan Simmons) were better, but not good enough that a share of playmaking accountabilities didn’t fall on Gordon’s shoulders. But to be a pro-level playmaker or creator requires a combination of skills he hasn’t fully developed.
Gordon’s judgment and decision making as a ball handler are still emerging. Becoming a competent, if below average, 3-point shooter creates an avenue to take advantage of his passing and ball handling, both of which are above average for a player his size, though his handle is often high and loose. But just because you can see a pass and throw a pass doesn’t mean you can (or will) do it while moving off the dribble. When attacking off the bounce, Gordon is often out of control with the bad habit du jour being one of the worst pull-up jumpers in the league. At times, when he attacks, it seems the game is moving too fast for him and it’s all he can to get the shot off.
The form itself isn’t completely broken, but rather unbalanced and abrupt. According to NBA.com, for players who appeared in at least 40 games and attempted at least 1.5 pull-ups per-game, Gordon’s 29.2 percent on 4.4 pull-ups per-game was fourth worst in the league. He was even messier on pull-up 3s where he was a league-worst 21.7 percent on nearly two tries-per-game (minimum criteria: 40 games, 15 minutes/game, one pull-up 3 per game). If we remove all of his pull-up 3s (23 makes on 105 attempts), he shot 39 percent from deep so there are clear paths to improvement. (It’s worth noting that not all of his pull-up threes are bad; if he’s in transition and can pull-up in rhythm, the shot is more natural, the motion more fluid.)
In terms of the judgment, it’s not that Gordon has a propensity to force passes or play outside of himself. Rather, his insistence on falling back on the pull-up jumper instead of dribbling or passing out of danger is indicative of inexperience or maturity and part of the issue that’s seemingly attached itself to his brief NBA career — one of role optimization which appears to be confused most recently by Vogel and created by the front office. In a January piece for the Orlando Sentinel, Chris Hays wrote, “Vogel acknowledged it is tough for a young player like Gordon to come out of college, where he was the go-to player, and learn how to also get his teammates involved.” This is a mostly inaccurate statement as Gordon was a 12-point-per-game scorer for that well-balanced Arizona team. The crux of the piece though was captured in Vogel’s quote,
“He had a night against Milwaukee where he clearly was forcing on his own offense too much and we took him out of the game as a result of it. His response to that [at Washington] was to come in and really make a cognizant effort to play with the pass and play the right way and improve his teammates.”
Vogel pushing Gordon to get teammates more involved lines up with everything I’ve seen, but at this stage of his career, asking him to be a guy who makes teammates better is asking him to do something he’s not good at. Ideally, Gordon would fill a more reactive role on offense. When he commits to a cut with a head of steam, he’s like LeBron with an engine fully revved. His quick jumping and second-jump ability make him a force of disruption on the offensive glass. Planting him in the corner while more skilled creators facilitate opens the floor.
For these reasons, Indiana seems like it would have been a perfect fit for his evolving game. To play next to a pair of competent ball handlers in Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo would free Gordon to do the things he excels at. Not to attempt psychoanalysis as I’m vastly underqualified, but I can’t help but wonder if Gordon saw himself as a perfect fit with the Pacers’ personnel.
Instead, Gordon returns to Orlando alongside the great gangly tangles of Mo Bamba and a hopefully healthy Jonathan Isaac. But as basketball life for Aaron Gordon unfolds, the fates lie on the shoulders of the man himself and the new coach, Steve Clifford. How Clifford deploys our young subject and how he’s learned, grown, and evolved in the off-season will shape the future. Can Gordon become some kind of 2018 concentric circle overlapping aspects of Andre Iguodala and Shawn Marion? Is he destined for a Rudy Gay in Memphis route? Or is it some basketball species altogether new and undiscovered? The latter is doubtful but with his physical gifts and age, I remain intrigued if eternally skeptical.