By John Denton
Nov. 10, 2017
PHOENIX – Four years earlier, when he was a star at the University of Arizona some 120 miles away from the site of the Orlando Magic’s game on Friday, Aaron Gordon would always hear the whispers about his suspect jump shot.
Someday, the ultra-athletic forward promised, he would solidify that missing part of his game and become the complete basketball player some wondered he would ever reach.
Gordon hit Phoenix on Friday with a sterling 57.5 percent accuracy rate from 3-point range – the second-best mark in the NBA. Overall, Gordon shot 55.2 from the floor in his first nine games of this NBA season. A 28.9 percent shooter from 3-point range over his first three professional seasons, Gordon has made one of the biggest jumps in shooting percentage in the NBA. In fact, his balanced shooting form, quick release and confident stroke probably came as a big surprise to college friends and Arizona Wildcats supporters in the crowd at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Friday night.
“People back then (in college) never saw me as a shooter and it’s going to take some time to shift the paradigm, but I don’t really care about that because I’m just playing the game,’’ Gordon said. “I feel comfortable out there (at the 3-point line) and I’m capable of scoring from anywhere now.’’
One of the game’s best athletes since he first dunked a basketball at the age of 12, Gordon got by with his explosive leaping ability and gritty hustle at the high school and college levels. However, in his first three seasons in the NBA, opponents often backed off him or helped off of him because of his lack of success shooting the ball from afar.
His massive improvements have come about, he stressed, because of the tireless work he put in over the summer perfecting a release that he drilled thousands of times a day. This past Wednesday, when Gordon burned the New York Knicks for 21 points and four-of-six accuracy from 3-point range, he even drilled a shot after curling off a screen, squaring up his shoulders and catching and shooting from 25 feet out. That doesn’t happen, he said, without the countless reps he put in over the summer.
“I had caught a rhythm and made one before that, and a couple in that quarter maybe, and it felt good and I let it fly,’’ Gordon said. “Coach (Frank Vogel) trusted me enough to put me in that position, I got a great pass and I just finished the play.’’
PASSING GRADES: The Magic entered Friday’s game ranked second in the NBA in 3-point percentage (40.6 percent) and tied for seventh in scoring (109.3 points per game), but head coach Frank Vogel said the statistics that impress him most are the ones that relate to the team’s passing.
Orlando came into Friday ranked third in the NBA in assists per game (24.9 per game), trailing only Golden State – the NBA’s gold standard as it relates to passing the ball – and the Philadelphia 76ers. Even more impressive to Vogel is the fact that the Magic are fourth in the NBA in assist percentage – meaning that 54.3 percent of Orlando’s baskets come off assists. To put that into perspective, Orlando ranked 29th in the NBA in assist percentage (48.9 percent) in 2016-17 – a season in which it finished 29-53.
This season, Orlando trails only Golden State, Milwaukee and Houston – three teams expected to go deep in the playoffs – in assist percentage. Vogel thinks that the Magic’s passing can only improve and should get better over time with point guard Elfrid Payton back after missing eight games with a hamstring strain.
“I just met with my analytics team to not only tell me what percentage of our makes are assisted, but what percent our total attempts (come off passes),’’ Vogel said. “I just wanted to see, `Are we shooting unassisted shots? Are we creating our own shots or are we shooting assisted shots?’ It’s no secret that assisted shots are a higher percentage (success rate) than unassisted shots. We want to try to dominate from there.’’
This season, the Magic have seven players averaging at least 2.0 assists a game. Payton (8.0 apg.), Evan Fournier (3.6 apg.), Nikola Vucevic (3.0 apg.), Gordon (2.1 apg.) and Jonathon Simmons (2.0 apg.) are averaging what would be career highs in assists.
BOOKER’S MAGIC MEMORIES: Suns’ standout guard Devin Booker spoke on Friday morning about a time when he thought the Magic might select him with the No. 5 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
A native of Grand Rapids, Mich., Booker became close friends with three of Magic owner Rich DeVos’ grandchildren while growing up years ago. Booker even tried calling in a family favor back in 2015, lobbying for Orlando to select him in the NBA Draft with the fifth overall pick. Orlando instead selected Croatian native Mario Hezonja, while Booker fell to the No. 15.
Booker has since blossomed into a star in Phoenix, averaging 22.1 points per game last season and scoring a franchise-record 70 points against Boston last March.
“I’m close with the (DeVos) family, but I wasn’t projected top-five or anything like that, so they went the rout that they went,’’ said Booker, who turned pro after just one season at the University of Kentucky. “It was more of a joking thing when I threw it out to the family – `you guys should have picked me when I was there’ – but I’m happy with where I’m at and they have a good player in Mario. Everything happens for a reason.’’
Booker said his free-fall to No. 15 on draft night has always served as a motivator for him and he noted that he gets up most when facing players from his same draft class.
“In that draft, I thought I was going eight or nine with Detroit or Charlotte and I thought I was going back home (to Michigan) or to Charlotte, but (the Hornets) drafted Frank Kaminsky and Miami drafted Justise (Winslow). I know the whole draft (by heart),’’ he said. “We had been compared against each other from a young age, since the rankings came out when we were in the seventh or eighth grade. So, we’ve always been competitive and every time we match up against one another there’s a respect, but we’re going after each other.’’
UP NEXT: Orlando will be back in action on Saturday for a second game in as many nights when it faces the Nuggets in Denver. Facing Denver on a back-to-back has been an unfavorable experienced for many teams over the years because of the distance of travel between other Western Conference cities and the Mile High City’s infamous altitude.
Whereas the Magic will be playing with little rest, the Nuggets (7-5) have been off since Thursday when they impressively whipped Oklahoma City, 102-94. In that game, guard Emmanuel Mudiay became the first Denver player since the 1976-77 season to score at least 21 points on 10-or-fewer shot attempts, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Mudiay made eight of 10 tries on Thursday.
Orlando will be off on Sunday before playing the Golden State Warriors in Oakland on Monday. The Magic wrap up their four-game West Coast swing in Portland on Wednesday night.
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