Making NBA All-Defensive First Team is Something Aaron Gordon Hopes to Achieve This Season

Steve Clifford believes Gordon has All-Star potential
by John Denton

ORLANDO – Just as Aaron Gordon was about to step into a media scrum, where he undoubtedly would be asked about how he hoped to live up to the massive contract he signed in the offseason and how he planned to follow up a career year on the court, Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford piped up from a few feet away with a wail that was equal parts request and demand.

``All-Defensive team,’’ said Clifford, using yet another opportunity to plant a seed in the blossoming forward’s head. ``Tell them that you’re going to be first-team All-Defense.’’

For those in the basketball world curious as to what the next step might be for the 22-year-old Gordon following a season in which he averaged career highs in every major statistical category and inked a long-term deal that should keep him in Orlando for the foreseeable future, Gordon’s focus will be on doing the little things that might allow him to finally savor some success with the Magic.

Clifford, the Magic’s new head coach who was hired in late May to turn the franchise’s fortunes around, met repeatedly with Gordon in the summer – both in the forward’s hometown of San Jose, Calif., and in Orlando – and their talks centered largely around what the 6-foot-9, 225-pounder must do to elevate himself and the Magic squad he is now being asked to lead. As was the case with most Clifford conversations, the head coach was about a subtle as a punch in the face and he didn’t hold back when telling Gordon where his focus needs to be affixed moving forward.

Gordon, who never met a challenge he didn’t like, listened to the critiques of his game and said he knows now where his next steps as a rising player need to be.

``I’ve got to bring it every night,’’ Gordon said. ``Coach Cliff was telling me that some nights I’d bring it if it was an all-star (opposing player) or a second-team or third-team (All-NBA) type of player, but if it wasn’t (a star opposite of him), I wouldn’t bring it and take those nights off. So, I’ve got to defensive rebound better and I feel like I need to up my off-ball steals. … You’ve got to develop a reputation (as a defender) and earn that respect. It’s something that I’m going to continue to try and grind for – grinding to be All-Defense and grinding to be (Defensive Player of the Year).’’

Do those types of things, while continuing to stack up numbers such as the 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.82 blocks he averaged last season, and big things could be ahead for both Gordon and the Magic. The team has won just 25, 35, 29 and 25 games in his four seasons as he’s seen his scoring average climb from 5.2 to 9.2 to 12.7 to 16.5 points per game. Clearly, winning is the most obvious thing missing from his basketball resume thus far.

Gordon said a big motivation in re-signing with the Magic was his desire to help Orlando finally get over the hump and win big again.

``That’s why I came back – to win with this franchise and do something special,’’ Gordon said. ``We have the ability to do that. Whether it’s going to be right away or a slow grind, either way we’re going to get there.’’

At Gordon’s introductory news conference in Orlando after the Magic had picked him with the No. 4 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the forward boldly stated that it was his goal to someday win the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. As his game has steadily grown on the offensive end, and as his star power has risen following spectacular showings in the dunk contest and cameos in Hollywood movies, Gordon’s focus has gradually strayed a bit from the defensive end of the floor. Clifford tried to use his first offseason with the Magic to try and emphasize to Gordon how much Orlando needs his length and strength in suffocating foes defensively.

``I think the biggest thing, to me, is that he is an all-star caliber player, but it all starts at the defensive end for him,’’ Clifford said. ``He’s at 19 (points) and eight (rebounds), and if you become a good individual defender and a team defender, then he’s an all-star caliber player.’’

Gordon, who is mature beyond his years, said he welcomes such challenges and has no plans of succumbing to the pressures of expectations. That includes the inevitable pressures that come with signing a massive contract and being looked at as a leader of the franchise. Finally, Gordon said, he feels a greater ownership of the team and he said he’s willing to do whatever it takes to live up to the contract he signed and be the leader that the Magic need.

``I feel like some people would look at (the contract), but I don’t and I’m just going to go out there and play the game that I love to play with the teammates that I love,’’ Gordon said. ``I know that they will be there to help take the pressure off and I’ll take the pressure off them. But I’m here to spearhead and be on all systems go and make sure that everybody is fighting every single night.’’

Gordon said signing his first long-term contract proved to be far more of an emotional moment than he ever expected that it would be. His parents, Ed and Shelly Gordon, were always driving forces as Aaron, brother Drew and sister Elisabeth chased their hoops dreams. Gordon said he shared one particularly emotional moment with Ed, who was once a basketball star at San Diego State, minutes after signing his contract with the Magic.

``I think it meant the most to my dad because he never got the chance to play in the NBA even though he was really close with the Los Angeles Clippers in Summer League,’’ Gordon said. ``He was just so happy, and I could hear it through the phone. I called him and said, `well, we did it, I signed.’ It was about making my folks, proud. We’ll all be a lot (prouder) when we start winning.’’

Gordon’s other response to signing his new contract was driving to the practice court at UCF to get in some shooting work that very night. (The Magic’s practice floor was being resurfaced at the time.) Those with the Magic who know Gordon the best love his willingness to work and they have the upmost confidence that he will continue to grow his game because of his hunger for greatness.

``He’s just got build on it and not let too many people talk to him about what they think he can become. You have to focus on you because it’s easy to let things get to you,’’ Magic shooting guard Terrence Ross said. ``I think he’s done a great job of that already. Right after he signed that contract, he was back to work and that was a really mature moment. I’m happy to see him grow and I’m happy I can be here when he enters his prime. Just keep working and stay humble and the rest will take care of itself with him.’’

Added Magic President of basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, referring to the franchise’s strong belief in Gordon: ``We believe that Aaron has a great leap yet to make. His improvement won’t come by him being a better worker because he’s already as good a worker as you could ever ask for. He’s going to have to get there by editing and gaining more of an overall understanding of how it all fits together. That comes with age and experience. The best thing about Aaron is that his response to any adversity is always hard work. Now, with the organization coming together as it is and putting pieces around him, we’re looking forward to him making that next leap.’’

If Gordon can make that next leap by continuing to grow his offensive game while giving Clifford and the Magic the defensive intensity being demanded of him, he very well could find himself at the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte in February. Only this time, Gordon won’t just be there for the NBA Dunk Contest (he said he likely won’t participate this year) or the 3-Point Shooting Contest (a dream of his to show off his progress). If he can make the leap – and finally make the Magic successful – Gordon could become an Eastern Conference All-Star in the very near future.

``I feel like I need to set the tempo and the energy around here because I have an energy about myself that I’ve always carried and it’s contagious,’’ said Gordon, who worked this offseason to better his conditioning and add strength.

``It’s a little give-and-take,’’ Gordon added, referring to his all-star chances. ``If we win, we’ll have a couple of all-stars on this team because we have those types of players. Winning is the ultimate. If we win, we’ll have all-stars and if we don’t, we won’t.’’

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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