College Coach: "Aaron is a once-in-a-lifetime player"

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By John Denton
Aug. 25, 2014

ORLANDO -- The player that Aaron Gordon was at the end of his freshman season at the University of Arizona was vastly different than the one who arrived on campus last summer predominantly unable to hit a jump shot.

Similarly, Arizona coach Sean Miller knows that the player that Gordon is now as he embarks on his rookie season with the Orlando Magic will likely pale in comparison to the standout player that the 18-year-old forward will ultimately become.

Miller said that while Gordon has his flaws when it comes to shooting the basketball those are merely blips on the radar when considering the forward’s impressive array of talents as a player. Combine the off-the-charts athleticism with a maturity well beyond his years with a work ethic that is unrivaled and Gordon is on a collision course with being an elite player in time, Miller said.

And, oh yeah, Miller pointed out, Gordon is still three weeks from his 19th birthday, meaning he still ridiculously young and has so much growing to do both as a basketball player and a person.

``Aaron is a once-in-a-lifetime player and it’s not just because of what he does on the court. It’s his work ethic, his demeanor and his approach to the game,’’ Miller said. ``Aaron talks a lot about becoming a better player and he’s one of those players who is willing to put in the work.

``He has a motor in games and in practice and in the gym by himself – it’s a drive that I haven’t seen in many players at all,’’ Miller continued. ``When you see the kind of drive that he has, it’s usually in the underdog or the walk-on who is trying to earn a scholarship or someone who is just trying to perfect their skill level because they aren’t talented enough. Aaron is unique because he has the ingredients of a world class athlete, but also a desire and a mindset that you usually only see in an underdog. That’s the combination that makes him so special. It makes him a great teammate and his coaching staff warms up to him. There’s a winning culture that follows him with how he handles himself every day.’’

Over the next couple of weeks here at OrlandoMagic.com, we’re going to give Magic fans a look rookies Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Devyn Marbl through the eyes of their college coaches at Arizona, Iowa and Louisiana-Lafayette, respectively. Click HERE (http://www.nba.com/magic/college-coach-praises-payton) to read Louisiana-Lafayette coach Bobby Marlin talk about Payton’s vast potential as a point guard for the Magic.

Who better to give Magic fans some insight into Gordon’s talents, work ethic and desire to great than Miller, the coach who first saw Gordon play as a ninth-grader who was already wowing fans with his dunking exploits? Miller is one of the college basketball’s preeminent head coaches, leading the Wildcats to 60 wins the past two seasons and a No. 1 ranking this past season. And he knows that Arizona wouldn’t have been able to reach such levels last year without Gordon, one of Miller’s favorite players in his time as a coach.

``With Aaron it’s just about falling in love with his mentality,’’ Miller gushed. ``He’s going to do what it takes to win. He’s going to play extremely hard. Every game for us he was the same person. Every practice he was the same. His motor is always running.

``And his spirit is contagious. People will see it in Orlando,’’ Miller added. ``When you have a guy like Aaron working like e does and it’s sincere and he’s so talented, it starts to become contagious. No different than the locker room lawyer or the bad apple who poisons three or four players on the team. Aaron is just the opposite. His contagious way is all positive and he’ll be great for the Magic.’’

Miller devoted hundreds of hours to recruiting Gordon out of the San Jose, Calif., area where he was a McDonald’s All-American at Archbishop Mitty High School. Just as Gordon – a four-year starter and a two-time state champion – was heavily pursued, the talented forward also sought to play for Miller because of Arizona’s famed shooting work. A 6-foot-9 forward with a 38-inch vertical leap and a nearly 7-foot wingspan, Gordon had all of the physical tools, but just needed a jump shot to go along with it. At Arizona, Miller taught him the basics of shooting step by step and let the phenom’s incredible work ethic take over.

``Where Aaron was as a shooter last August and where he is this August is another level all together,’’ Miller said. ``Whatever he checks in at as a shooter this year isn’t going to be what you want or what he wants. But six months from now, a year from now or two years from now, Aaron is still going to be 21 years old and still really young. He’s absolutely going to get better because he’s going to put the work in. It’s just a matter of time for him.’’

With Gordon spearheading the team, Arizona won 33 games and reached the Elite Eight last season before losing an overtime heartbreaker to Wisconsin. Gordon’s combination of athleticism, versatility and toughness helped the Wildcats frustrate foes on a nightly basis. Arizona ranked sixth in the country in points allowed per game, and Gordon was the driving force of that defense by holding his individual foe to less than 30 percent shooting throughout the season. Gordon averaged 12.4 points and 8.0 rebounds a game, but it was his 1.0 blocks and 0.9 steals a game that truly made a difference for the Wildcats.

``Aaron can move around and guard a low-post player, a great athlete running off screens and a great shooter. It’s that versatility as a defender – not just being a lockdown defender – that overall makes him special,’’ Miller said. ``Aaron just makes your whole defense better. We were, from start to finish the nation’s best defensive team last season. Arizona has had some great teams here, national championship teams, and we were hands down the best defensive team that’s ever played here. A lot of it had to do with Aaron.’’

Miller said that, in time, Magic fans will fall in love with Gordon’s willingness to defend and do the dirty work on the floor. He will also impress with his versatility, his basketball smarts and that amazing ability to soar high above the rim for thunderous dunks. The shooting, Miller admitted, is still very much a work in progress and it will be up to Gordon to keep his focus on doing the things he does well to have an impact on the Magic as a rookie.
But because Gordon is a worker and he has the kind of mindset that coaches only dream about star players having, Miller strongly believes the forward is destined to thrive in Orlando as a do-everything forward for years to come.

``Aaron has great humility. He is confident, but he can also be very hard on himself,’’ Miller said. ``Part of what drives him is that he wants to become a better shooter and improve in areas where he’s lacking. He pushes himself and he can be really hard on himself and when he does that it can take away from what makes him great as a player. He has to have that balance of working to get better at the things that need improving while also sticking with his strengths so that he can bring the best that he can to the team. Sometimes he’s too hard on himself and he starts to dwell on what he isn’t doing well. But he’s going to be a really good one for the Magic for a long time.’’