ORLANDO – Aaron Gordon is so committed to his craft and dedicated to growing his game over his offseasons that he considers his best vacation of this summer to be his trips from his childhood home in Northern California back to Orlando.
``You know me, I work hard, but I play hard, too,’’ Gordon said with a sarcastic chuckle. ``We went to China for (Nike) business. I’ve been taking a lot of business trips, but I haven’t gotten a full vacation yet. But Orlando is like a vacation for me.’’
Gordon’s work ethic is legendary in Magic circles and he often attacks his offseasons with such fury that he’s already been able to boost his scoring average three times in his five-year NBA career, and last season he put together his finest all-around performance. Now, with Gordon still riding the momentum of the Magic making the playoffs last season, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward has turned his offseason focus to improving a particular element of his game that he thinks will make him an even more effective player in the season to come.
As is often the case with all things basketball, Gordon has given his individual improvement lots of thought this offseason. He’s backed those thoughts up with plenty of work and he can’t wait to unveil the fruits of his labor when the Magic open training camp on Oct. 1 at the Amway Center.
``I’ve gotten a lot better in the post,’’ Gordon said with conviction. ``Earlier in my career I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed as someone who only plays on the block, and sometimes I would overthink (posting up). So, I lost a part of my game that I needed and something that we needed as a team.’’
Gordon, 23, has gone back and evaluated his play from a 2018-19 season where he averaged 16 points, 7.4 rebounds and a career-best 3.7 assists while shooting 44.9 percent from the floor, 34.9 percent from 3-point range and 73.1 percent from the free throw line. Paired in the starting lineup with fellow forward Jonathan Isaac, Gordon knows there will be plenty of mismatches that he can exploit in the season ahead.
Gordon’s thinking goes something like this: When guarded by lighter small forwards, he wants to be able to use his chiseled body as a battering ram in the post to create point-blank looks; and when he’s being checked by slower power forwards, Gordon thinks he will have major advantages with his quickness and footwork to get to the rim for easy opportunities.
``On the low block, I can use my jump hooks, up-and-unders and doing stuff that the coaching staff, my teammates and the whole city are comfortable with,’’ he said. ``It’s just about getting the ball on the block and making a play for my team.’’
Gordon certainly has room for growth as a post-up player. Last season, he got the ball on the post 219 times – the 32ndmost post-up opportunities by any NBA player. The rub, however, was that he shot just 40.4 percent on his 114 shot attempts out of the post. Also, his efficiency was much lower than he and the Magic would have liked with him handing out just 13 assists, while turning the ball over 12 times and committing 11 fouls from the post.
To put those numbers into perspective, Magic center Nikola Vucevic had 714 post-up opportunities last season – the third most in the NBA behind only LaMarcus Aldridge (1,005) and Karl-Anthony Towns (990). Vucevic shot a solid 48.1 percent on his 320 shots from the post, while also contributing 68 assists (with 41 turnovers and 21 fouls).
Gordon felt the need to raise his game after the way the Magic closed last regular season and disappointingly lost four straight games to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors after winning Game 1 in the playoffs. Out of contention much of Gordon’s first four years in the NBA, he helped Orlando became one of the feel-good stories of the NBA last season. The Magic went 22-9 in February, March and April to qualify for the postseason, win 42 games overall and post the NBA’s best win-improvement total (plus-17) over the previous season.
Gordon played a major role in that improvement by dialing back his focus on scoring a bit while improving other aspects of his game. His 3.7 assists a game were easily the best mark of his career and his 7.4 rebounds a game were close to matching his career mark from the season prior. And he did all of that while usually smothering the best scorer on the other team – something he did exceptionally well even though he didn’t garner a single vote for the NBA’s All-Defense team after the season.
Now, with expectations soaring this season for a Magic team that retained free agents Terrence Ross, Khem Birch and Vucevic in the offseason and added defensive ace Al-Farouq Aminu to a core that already includes Evan Fournier, D.J. Augustin, Mo Bamba, Markelle Fultz, Wes Iwundu and Isaac, the Magic know the expectations for them will be even greater in the 2019-20 season.
``This is going to be a big season for us, and I think we’re ready for it,’’ Gordon stressed. ``We’re solid in so many ways and our consistency is going to give us a big edge.
``I know everybody on the team is excited to get started and having the same coach (in Steve Clifford) again is going to be huge,’’ added Gordon, who will play for the same coach for a second straight season for just the second time in his pro career. ``Knowing that we have somebody (in Clifford) that we can rely on and trust and buy into his system, that should lead us to another great year.’’
The Magic open the regular season on Oct. 23 at the Amway Center against the rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers and they play three of their first four games against teams that missed the playoffs last season. Also, nine of the first 13 games will be at home – something that should put the team in a position to get off to a fast start. Orlando won its last nine games at home last season and overall went 25-16 at the Amway Center.
Gordon said there are two more reasons why the Magic are welcoming raised expectations – their collective will to improve themselves this offseason and a palatable chemistry with one another that was built last season and will carry over in the upcoming one.
``That can be our only mindset – wanting more,’’ Gordon said, as if he was passing along a message to his teammates. ``Last year, we went into training camp not really knowing what to expect, and because of that we didn’t really have that confidence of buying in early on. Now, we know that we can win and it’s just about playing at a high level of Orlando Magic basketball on a night in, night out basis so that we can show people what we can do.’’
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