When the Orlando Magic selected Aaron Gordon 4th overall in the 2014 NBA draft critics used one word to justify the selection from the get-go, “athleticism”. They weren’t wrong, as the University of Arizona product’s about as athletic as they come, but what they really meant is that while Gordon may be able to jump out of the gym he can’t shoot.
They weren’t wrong about that either, as, per basketball-reference, during an injury-shortened first season with the Magic Gordon averaged just 5.2 PPG. A terrific dunker, he made .447 of his attempts from the field, but managed just .271 from deep, not great for a tweener playing on a young team that lacks offensive firepower, especially from range.
That said, the fact that he made just fourty seven appearances in pinstripes during his rookie year means he had plenty of time to think about what kind of player he wants to be, not to mention what kind of player the Magic need him to be. Thankfully he also spent a fair amount of that time in the gym, expanding his repertoire and re-working his jumper, so that the point of release is now just above his head, rather than in front of his face. And, during his three appearances at the Orlando leg of this year’s summer league, it showed, as he averaged 21.7 PPG and 11.7 RPG, albeit against inexperienced opponents cutting their teeth in the association.
A lot of those points were scored in familiar territory, namely the paint, but Gordon exhibited a great deal of confidence when pulling up for jumpshots too and even went 6-of-12 from deep during the tourney, verbally chastising the defenders who’d dared him to take each shot along the way. Speaking of confidence, it was exciting to see him handling the ball more and even creating his own looks off the dribble every now and again – something we certainly didn’t see him do much last season.
This all bodes extremely well for the Magic, as, heading into their fourth season post-Dwight Howard, expectations are sure to be a little higher than they’ve been to date, even if GM Rob Hennigan is finding it difficult to attract the kind of free agent needed to officially draw a line through the team’s “rebuilding” status. This year could be the year though, as the roster’s young core of Gordon, Nik Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, freshly drafted rookie Mario Hezonja and Evan Fournier should soon start making some noise in the weaker of the two conferences.
Even if the playoffs do turn out to be just out of reach, this season should provide a sense of just how competitive this group can be going forward, especially as it seems as if Payton, Oladipo and Vucevic have all cemented their positions in the starting five. Yet, while the former work on their own shots and the latter bolsters his defensive approach, head coach Scott Skiles gets to ponder how best to utilise his forwards and, given the fact that he has Gordon, Hezonja and the recently re-signed Harris to squeeze into the line-up, that won’t be an easy task.
Headaches aside, what that group will give him is flexibility, as Hezonja can be a lethal offensive weapon at either the two or the three, while Gordon and Harris can play at both the three and the four. Take that a step further and it might not be impossible to imagine a group that utilises either Gordon or Harris at the five, in a way not dissimilar to that in which, say, the Golden State Warriors employed Draymond Green en route to an NBA title. Conversely, Skiles could construct a bigger line-up around a combination of Gordon/Harris, Vucevic and Dewayne Dedmon, depending on what he’s faced with. The possibilities seem endless, but Gordon’s the key to the kind of versatility Hennigan craves, especially as his offensive game is now showing the kind of potential Harris’ defensive game lacks.
Speaking of defence, it’s not entirely clear why Rob Hennigan allowed Moe Harkless to go to Portland for next to nothing. Presumably he wants to ensure that Gordon, Harris and Hezonja get as many minutes as possible next season, while the more experienced Channing Frye and Andrew Nicholson pick up what’s left. Perhaps that theory applies to Kyle O’Quinn too, as he saw his minutes slip away last season before getting shipped to New York in a sign-and-trade deal from which Orlando got nothing more than the option to swap second round draft picks in 2019 and cash consideration.
Moves like these suggest Hennigan has a lot of faith in his forwards, Aaron Gordon in particular, as, given the fact that at just nineteen years of age he has a strong work ethic, an NBA body, bags of energy and athleticism, a defensive game that enables him to guard multiple positions and, now, a vastly improved jumpshot, he appears to be the most versatile of the current glut, not to mention the one with the most potential.
Whether or not he’ll be able to put it all together when the grit and grind of the regular season kicks in remains to be seen, but, either way, his second year in the league should ensure he amounts to more than a player defined solely by his athleticism.
Assuming at least some of what we saw during summer league translates, it should also be a lot of fun to watch too.