Every young NBA player takes a different amount of time to adjust to the NBA game. For some, it's a matter of adjusting to a quicker pace, and a more physical game. For others, it's about finding their niche, knowing when to pick their spots, and what is the right play to make in certain high pressure situations.
Just 91 games into his NBA career, everything is beginning to click for Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon.
Since the start of the new year, Gordon has looked like a completely different player, taking confident shots on the offensive end, while continuing his high level of play on the defensive side. His play, which has been the best of any Magic player throughout the rough first month of the calendar year, has resulted in more minutes, and an insertion into the starting lineup.
That move, which was made by Scott Skiles five games ago, is paying dividends for the young, scrappy Magic bunch.
Across his first four games as a starter, the uber athletic second-year forward posted averages of 10.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists, a far cry from his 7.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.2 assists coming off the bench. Sunday night against the Celtics, Gordon showed off his oozing potential and just why the Magic took him with the fourth pick in the 2014 draft.
In a career-high 39 minutes, Gordon tied his career high in points (19), and posted career highs in rebounds (14), assists (5) and field goals made (8). While he didn't lead the team in scoring -- that honor went to Evan Fournier, who burst out of his mini shooting slump in a big way posting an efficient 24 points on 6-of-8 shooting -- Gordon was the best player on the floor for the Magic all night.
Be it knocking down a big shot, or digging out a key rebound, it seemed as though Gordon was a part of every key play.
With his team up nine late, Gordon chased down Celtics defensive ace Avery Bradley, who had found an open spot in the corner for a three-point attempt. Flying by the smaller Bradley, the Arizona product threw his shot back into the stands, saving the Magic from seeing their lead cut to six with just two minutes to play.
Two possessions later, Gordon wove through Celtics players to throw down a monster put back dunk off of a Nikola Vucevic miss. The bucket put the Magic up 10, with just under a minute and a half remaining.
Following the game, coach Skiles praised Gordon, especially for his block on the Bradley three.
The block was really, really a big play, even though it seemed like we were ahead... it was one of those things we are battling a little bit with our guys," said the first year Magic head man. "Him chasing that guy down and and the tip-dunk, those were big plays. I thought Aaron was active pretty much all night long.
Those plays, which ultimately were key in the Magic's much needed victory, personify who Gordon is, and what he can bring to the table. His athleticism allows him to find holes and come up with 50/50 balls and finish challenging attempts at the rim, while also aiding him in his strong play on the defensive side of the ball.
Being out late in the game was a big step in Gordon's continued development as well. "My team is developing trust in me, and I'm developing trust in my teammates, as well as my coaching staff" said Gordon. "It's starting to come together. It just kind of gives you the freedom to play."
While Gordon's play was huge, he wasn't the Magic's only young player to come through in the clutch.
Through his first 42 games, Magic rookie Mario Hezonja struggled to get on the floor consistently. Sunday night, Hezonja showed off why he was the fifth pick in last years draft.
Coming off the bench late in the first quarter, Hezonja knocked down a pair of jumpers, giving the Magic a much needed spark early. His stellar play didn't stop there, with Hezonja showing a confidence level we had yet to see from the Croatian.
"He was very good offensively again, so he is improving," said Skiles. "He's starting to understand the quickness of the game and [the] length of the player and things like that... He doesn't come unhinged out there and he had a good offensive game."
Outside of a timidness to shoot the ball from time-to-time, Hezonja's offense was never an issue. Defensively, however, is a completely different story.
On Sunday, however, Hezonja showed how much work he has put in, chasing guys around screens, closing out well and stunting to kill driving lanes in help defense. While there's still work that needs to be done with timing, he's improving, and he knows it.
"It's not there yet," said the rookie, when asked about becoming an improved two-way player. "That's a crucial time on the floor, it was good, we had like a bunch of stops, but I'm not going to lie to you: I'm not happy with that. No one's happy with that. We have to do it more, and overall strive for more."
Hezonja's teammates also noticed how well the youngster play. Gordon claimed that the guard was "huge" throughout the entire game. "He came off the bench and played like a monster. His efficient on the court, his ability to make plays for other people and his shooting abilities are outstanding."
Fournier also commented on Hezonja's high energy out of the gates. "He came out with a lot of energy, a lot of confidence, and he shot the ball well. Mario was big time for us... Mario was great for us."
In the end, taking home the victory was the most important thing for the Magic. But, the play of two of their key, young players was huge.
Both Gordon and Hezonja will likely play big roles for the team in the future, and Sunday night was just a taste of what they can really do out there, even this early in their careers.