ORLANDO - In prior seasons, while Aaron Gordon was still in the very early stages of his development, the now 23-year-old showed flashes of what he could become defensively. He’s always had the things you really can’t teach – such as first-class athleticism, a high motor, length, superb instincts and excellent lateral quickness.
Before this season even started, his head coach, Steve Clifford, said Gordon has the prerequisites necessary to make an NBA All-Defensive First Team. The 2014 lottery draft pick agreed, telling reporters in September it was a goal of his to be recognized for his commitment to defense.
If the rest of the league wasn’t paying attention to the 6-foot-9, 220-pounder's defensive gifts before, his performance on that side of the floor over the last week may finally be changing that.
Ben Simmons, LeBron James and, most recently, Kawhi Leonard found out over the last several days just how ferocious and disciplined the San Jose native has become when he’s guarding the ball.
Despite it coming in a heartbreaking loss, Tuesday’s effort against Leonard, an extremely fundamentally sound offensive player, was extraordinary. It was apparent Gordon studied the two-time NBA All-Star, who was limited to 18 points and just three free throw attempts, both well below his season averages.
Except for one time in the fourth quarter, Gordon avoided getting caught in the air when Leonard attempted one of his pump fakes that usually fools defenders.
The Magic’s five-year veteran recorded three blocks in the first three minutes of the game, rejecting three different Raptors players – Leonard, Danny Green and Serge Ibaka.
You could argue that every Magic player looks improved defensively this season. Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier, not previously known for being lockdown defenders, have been very smart on that end of the floor. Terrence Ross has tremendous instincts and anticipation, a reason why among reserves he’s one of the league’s leaders in deflections.
Perhaps what’s craziest about the long-term potential of this team is that Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba are all capable of evolving into Defensive Player of the Year candidates.