Aaron Gordon's Improvement Noticeable at Summer League

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

By John DentonJuly 6, 2015

ORLANDO – Shooting the ball infinitely better than this time 12 months ago and light years ahead of where he was in terms of playing instinctually, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon has repeatedly looked like the best player in the Southwest Airlines Orlando Pro Summer League so far.

But those things don’t just happen automatically, especially for players with just one season of NBA experience and ones who are still three months shy of their 20th birthday.

However, since the Magic’s 2014-15 season ended on April 15, Gordon has attacked working on his game the way he attacks the rim – with ferocity and usually with big-time success.

Gordon’s already chiseled 6-foot-9, 230-pound frame features more muscle definition and mass – products of working tirelessly with fitness trainers in Santa Barbara, Calif. Most of the rest of his time has been in gymnasiums – both in Orlando at the Amway Center and on the West Coast near his home in San Jose, Calif. – working to sharpen his shooting stroke and better his counter moves against defenses.

Following a promising, but injury-marred rookie season, Gordon vowed to come back to Orlando a better player this summer. Albeit it being just the summer league and he’s facing mostly free-agent and Development League players, but Gordon has shown off-the-charts improvement so far. As if averages of 21.5 points and 14 rebounds aren’t proof enough, listen to new Magic assistant coach Monte Mathis rave about the electrifying forward’s drive to get better.

``First and foremost, he’s an unbelievable person and that goes hand-in-hand with how he works,’’ said Mathis, who was the designated head coach on Monday when the Magic’s Blue squad lost 73-65 to Oklahoma City. ``(Gordon’s) work ethic is one of the best that I’ve seen and I’ve been around (Dallas Mavericks superstar) Dirk Nowitzki for 10 years. And that (Gordon) kid puts in the time and that’s why he’s going to get better and better.’’

High praise for Gordon, who played just 47 games last season because of a fractured bone in the outside of his left foot. He came on late in the season, compiling his first-ever double-double in a win in Milwaukee and authoring masterful defensive performances against Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins and Bucks guard Khris Middleton.
Still, Gordon averaged just 5.2 points and 3.6 rebounds and played only 17 minutes a night on a 25-win Magic team. He saw several players in his rookie class, including Orlando teammate Elfrid Payton, eclipse him in Year 1. And that drove him to attack this offseason with the sole purpose of getting better.

New Magic coach Scott Skiles told Gordon about the need to develop more skill to go with his off-the-charts athleticism, and the multi-dimensional forward with the mature persona and the high-basketball IQ took the words to heart.

``Aaron has exceptional athleticism and with him it’s just about using it when he needs it and getting it under control when he doesn’t need to,’’ said Skiles, who directed the Magic’s first four summer league practices so that he had an opportunity to work with Magic rookie Mario Hezonja, Devyn Marble, Payton and Gordon. ``We feel like he’s making good progress.’’

Fresh off a 22-point, 18-rebound and two-block performance on Saturday, Gordon battered the Thunder (2-0) for 21 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and three steals on Monday. He scored 10 of Orlando’s first 12 points and made eight of 11 shots – five of those shots coming from the perimeter on squared-up, under-control, mid-range shots. Through two games, he’s made 16 of 29 shots (55.2 percent), hit three 3-pointers and he’s also gotten to the free throw line 18 times.

Contrast all of that to a year ago when Gordon had just become the fourth overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft and he was pulling on a NBA jersey for the first time. The desire to prove himself at the NBA level caused his nerves to spike and his effectiveness. Making matters worse, he didn’t have a reliable jump shot at that time and his arsenal of counter moves was limited when dunks weren’t available. In the 2014 Summer league, he never scored more than 12 points in five games and his numbers (7.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 35 percent shooting) spoke to the improvements that he needed to make.

The difference between then and now for Gordon? ``Night and day,’’ he said with a wistful head shake.

``I feel a lot more comfortable,’’ Gordon said, placing extra emphasis on the words a lot. ``I feel like I can pretty much control what I want to do on offense. I have a lot more improvement to go and it’s just one day at a time. But it’s just have to stay focused.’’

Gordon has been plenty focused early in games so far. On Saturday, he dropped 10 straight points on the Clippers – six of them on two 3-pointers, a mid-range jumper and a floater down the lane. On Monday, he scored 10 of Orlando’s first 12 points with two points coming from the free throw line and the other eight off a variety of pull-up, face-up and step-back jump shots.

Clearly, Gordon is a more instinctual player now. When the defense backs off, he confidently strokes shots that he likely would have passed up a year again. And when defenders press up onto him, Gordon has the quickness, athleticism and strength to get to the rim for finishes in traffic.

``(Playing more instinctually) is something that he’s worked to do all summer and there’s a learning curve there in the NBA, especially at his (small forward) position after playing a lot of (power forward) in college,’’ Mathis said. ``he’s learning how to put the ball on the floor, when to drive and when to shoot. It’s something that’s going to keep coming for him because he keeps working at it.’’

Gordon had a rim-rattling alley oop dunk, two tough finishes at the rim in traffic and a couple of step-back jump shots on Monday against the Thunder. But his most impressive play was one that resulted in points for a teammate. Gordon drove hard to his right and into the paint to make the defense collapse around him. He then found new Hezonja in the corner for a wide-open 3-point shot that the rookie buried to briefly tie the game.

It was just the kind of play that Gordon never would have made a year earlier or even during the past season for the Magic. It happened because he is more comfortable on the floor and his skill set is far more diverse. And that evolution has come because Gordon has been willing to practically live in the gym and work tirelessly at improving his entire game.

``I have a whole year under my belt now,’’ Gordon said. ``Last year was about being comfortable with being uncomfortable. This year, I’m a lot more comfortable and that just makes everything easier for me.’’

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