Aaron Gordon Looks Like Man on a Mission to Finish Rookie Season

By John Denton

April 5, 2015

MILWAUKEE – Whether it was him smothering Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo or confidently stroking a jumper late in another win on Saturday, Orlando Magic rookie Aaron Gordon is making the kind of charge that has those around him wishing he had five more months of the season instead of just five more games.

Finally healthy and confident, the 19-year-old Gordon feels the surge coursing through every vein. Magic interim coach James Borrego, who trusts the precocious forward in late-game situations because of his versatility and his basketball smarts, feels it as well. And, so too, do teammates who marvel at the things that the physically gifted Gordon can do.

``On the boards, he goes and gets rebounds that most guys in this league can’t get,’’ Borrego said after Gordon’s career-best 12-rebound effort on Saturday night. ``He has the athleticism and the physicality. And offensively we’re just seeing a kid growing every single game. He’s more comfortable, he knows his spots and where we want him. He’s just a joy to watch with his development right before our eyes.’’

Orlando, which is off now until Wednesday when it hosts the Chicago Bulls, captured consecutive road games on Friday and Saturday for the first time since early December. Certainly, Nikola Vucevic deserved credit for his 37- and 20-point performances. Tobias Harris was huge with back-to-back double-doubles and a career-best five 3-pointers on Saturday. And Victor Oladipo shook off some horrid shooting over a two-game stretch with three big makes in the closing minutes of Saturday’s 97-90 defeat of playoff-bound Milwaukee.

But Gordon – who saw a large chunk of his rookie season wiped out by a fractured bone in the outside of his left foot from November to February – also played a major role in the victories with some stellar play. His defense kept Wiggins – the favorite to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award – from scoring a basket in the final 14 minutes on Friday in Minnesota. And on Saturday, Gordon notched the first double-double of his career (10 points and 12 rebounds) by defending with grit, outworking Milwaukee on the glass and knocking down open shots when the ball swung his direction.

The success in big Magic wins has boosted the spirits of Gordon, who once feared that his rookie season was going to be a washout because of a couple of stops and starts with injuries.

``I’ve just got to keep stringing (solid performances) together and stay away from our trainer’s table,’’ Gordon said of avoiding injuries. ``I just have to stay out there on the court, stay healthy and things will continue to fall in place for me.’’

When the Magic surprised many draftniks last June by taking Gordon with the No. 4 pick, they were well aware that he could defend at a high level and that he had to kind of jaw-dropping athleticism to soar exceptionally high for rebounds and alley-oop passes. But his jump shot was a major area of concern, and those whispers about Gordon’s lagging offensive game only grew louder when the rookie struggled badly to shoot the ball during the Orlando Pro Summer League.

But Gordon spent most of the offseason working with shooting coach Dave Love to rework his jumper and come up with a technique that he could repeat time and again. Whereas most rookies might have been stubborn about scrapping a shot that got them to the professional level, Gordon was a willing learning. He never let his ego stand in the way of improvement and he continued to practice his form even while wearing a cast of his foot for six weeks. Now, he’s become a 48.5 percent shooter from the floor and a 30 percent 3-point shooter.

``There’s nothing wrong with working with a shooting coach. I’ve been waiting all my life to get with a NBA shooting coach. I’ve learned how to shoot like a pro,’’ said Gordon, who confidently buried a shot on Saturday when Milwaukee forward Jared Dudley went under on a screen and dared the rookie to take aim. ``It was just about breaking it down and rebuilding it. It was just learning the nuances of it and learning the science behind the shot. Once I did that and figured out how I needed to shoot, I was about to get a good balance between mechanics and rhythm.’’

Borrego marvels at the improvement that Gordon has made with his shot, and he’s seen the NBA’s second-youngest player shoot the ball with much more confidence of late. Borrego likes having Gordon on the floor late in games because of his ability to guard any player when Orlando switches on pick-and-roll plays. Gordon’s ability to also be a threat offensively has made the rookie even more valuable.

``I think courage is the best way to describe a player who is re-working his shot,’’ Borrego said. ``It takes courage to be open to change. Aaron has been open and he’s been a great student. Dave Love has been a great teacher and we’re seeing the effects of that combination. That’s going to continue in the months to come and it’s a major part of his development.

``Right now, Aaron can control his defense, effort and rebounding and the offense is going to come,’’ Borrego continued. ``His shot has improved mightily since the start of the season. That area is going to be OK for him because he can knock down shots for us. Handling the ball and playmaking will get there. But right now he’s impacting games for us because he makes winning plays with his defense, on the board and with his energy and spirit.’’

That spirit could be seen on the defensive end of the floor on Friday and Saturday when Gordon resembled a lockdown defender for the Magic. He made life miserable for Wiggins late in Orlando’s win in Minnesota. And on Saturday, he took turns covering Khris Middleton and Antetokounmpo and he blocked two shots.
``Coming in (to the NBA) I thought I’d be able to guard (shooting guards) through (power forwards), but I can guard (point guards) through (centers) I believe,’’ Gordon said confidently.

In Gordon’s first news conference in Orlando back in June he predicted that he would someday soon compete for a spot on the NBA’s All-Defensive team. And after stuffing Wiggins on Friday, Gordon said he looks forward to a time when he is asked to guard the other team’s best player every night.

That kind of talk makes Borrego – a coach who has worked tirelessly to make the Magic a more defensive-minded team – beam with pride.

``Every good team, every championship team has that type of player,’’ Borrego said of Gordon’s willingness to guard the best the other team has to offer. ``Aaron is one of those guys because he absolutely believes that he can be a top-level defender and someone we can put on the opponents’ best player, whether that’s a (point guard), (shooting guard), (small forward) or a (power forward). That’s realistic and not just us dreaming something up. We’re excited about his future.’’

Unquestionably, Aaron Gordon is coming on for the Magic. He knows it, his coach knows it and more and more opponents around the NBA are starting to know it, too.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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