By John Denton
Sept. 27, 2017
ORLANDO – For three years, Aaron Gordon has had to patiently put his hoop dreams on hold as he’s been forced to navigate a barrage of injuries, bide his time behind more experienced players, repeatedly change positions and grow his own game.
Now that he’s back in his more natural spot at power forward and buoyed by a strong finish to last season and an injury-free offseason, the high-flying Gordon could be poised to finally take full flight for the Orlando Magic.
If the 22-year-old Gordon indeed does that, becoming the elite player that he’s always thought he could be and becoming known more for his game than his dunking exploits, that improvement could have a direct impact on the Magic’s ability to make a major leap in the Eastern Conference standings.
If the past three years have taught Gordon anything – besides the fact that progress isn’t always linear because of a multitude of factors out of his control – it’s that he’s better served focusing on the here and now instead of dreaming about what he and his Magic can ultimately become.
“I love this game and I’m going to just continue to play it mindfully and presently,’’ said Gordon, a disciple of the power of sports psychology and meditation. “Whatever happens after that, happens. I love the game too much to even think about that (future).’’
Forgive Magic fans for trying to project what the chiseled 6-foot-9, 220-pound Gordon can become after the magnificent teaser that he offered up over the final 24 games of last season. Shifted back to a spot where he can better use his breathtaking athleticism to attack the rim, Gordon averaged 16.4 points, 6.2 rebounds while shooting 50.8 percent from the floor over the final 24 games of last season – marked improvements over the first 56 games (11.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 42.8 percent shooting). According to ESPN.com, Gordon had an 18.4 Player Efficiency Rating down the stretch compared to a 12.3 PER in the first two-thirds of the season.
Big nights, such as his 32-point, 16-rebound, two-block effort against Boston in late March and a 32-point, 12-rebound, two-block masterpiece in the season finale against Detroit have some wondering if Gordon is a stock that is finally matured and about to skyrocket for the Magic.
“It shows up in his work ethic because he works extremely hard on his game and his body,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. “He studies (basketball) and he’s trying to raise the level of the whole group.’’
Added Magic point guard Elfrid Payton, one of Gordon’s closest friends on the team: “Definitely, he’s ready to take that jump. A.G. is somebody who works hard and he’s starting to really get that feel for the game. He’s going to be great for us at (power forward) because he’s a matchup nightmare. I’m so excited to see him out there this year. You need that drive to be great that he has and he’s somebody who puts the work in, so (greatness) is definitely achievable for him.’’
To his credit, Gordon has kept his goals in check and realistic for the season ahead, focusing primarily on the process right now. He speaks more about the Magic becoming a winner than he does about himself being an all-star. For now, he has great delight in some of the smallest things, such as the fact that there is no debilitating injury to slow him down and he’ll be playing for the same head coach for a second consecutive season.
The fourth pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Gordon’s career has been slowed by a variety of issues. His rookie season was marred by fractured bone in his foot, while the start of his second season was delayed by a fractured jaw. Last season, he severely sprained his ankle in a September pick-up game – another injury that limited his training camp time as he was attempting to transition from power forward to small forward.
This time around, there are no such setbacks and Gordon was able to spend the offseason knowing what to expect from Vogel, where he will be playing and what will be asked of him on this Magic team.
“I wanted to come into the training camp healthy,’’ Gordon said bluntly. “This is my fourth year and it’s the first time I’ve had the same coach in back-to-back years. That will be nice because what’s understood doesn’t need to be explained. You get more of that with a coach in the second year and you can just make eye contact and understand and you don’t have to take the time to fully explain everything.’’
One constant throughout Gordon’s NBA career has been his ability to defend at a high level – regardless of position of the player that he’s being asked to defend. Last season, Gordon had stellar nights against elite players such as LeBron James, James Harden, Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler, giving those players fits with his length and strength.
Among his teammates, Gordon contested 6.2 shots a game – the second most among any wing player. Much like the Magic’s sagging defense last season, Gordon’s field-goal against percentage (52.4) dipped as the season went along, and he knows that Orlando must be much better defensively if the squad is going to make a jump.
Gordon, who certainly knows a thing or two about defense, feels the addition of Jonathon Simmons will help make his job much easier this season on the defensive end of the floor. Simmons, who famously smothered Harden in a Game 6 playoff victory last spring, ranked first in the NBA last season in defensive rating (96.7 points per 100 possessions) for players who appeared in at least 75 games.
“He’s going to help a ton because he’s so tenacious defensively – and offensively, too,’’ Gordon gushed about the Magic’s new addition. “It seems like his motor is going nonstop. To see another guy with an intense work ethic and an intense motor, that makes me jump for joy.’’
The Magic will undoubtedly be jumping for joy if a healthy, mature Gordon makes another huge jump in his game this season. No longer shackled by the need to be patient, the transition with a new coach or slowed by an injury, Gordon can fully unleash himself on foes and tap further into his potential. A player who still has some limitations, Gordon’s success depends on him staying within himself as a player – more dunks than threes; more attacks in transition and off cuts than with ball-dominant isolation plays; more sound defense techniques instead of gambles – for his game to noticeably vault this season.
No pressure or anything, but Gordon is fully aware that his growth as a player could have a direct effect on the Magic’s ability to grow as a serious playoff contender. His confidence is overflowing and he welcomes the challenge of being a player who can help the Magic get over the proverbial hump this season.
“First and foremost, it would be nice if everybody is confident with themselves and in their own game,’’ Gordon stressed. “That’s the biggest thing – you take care of yourself first and tighten that and then your other teammates can put trust in you. I see that with the guys on this team; I see the confidence they have in me and want me to do well.’’
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