Aaron Gordon is a perfect microcosm of the Orlando Magic’s fractured plans for the future. He is raw and explosive – a potential-laden mass of muscles and tendons with no direction.
It’s up to the Magic coaching staff and front office to mold him, to set expectations and monitor his progress. The biggest issue so far hasn’t been Gordon’s inability to grow; it’s been the team’s constantly changing objectives for him.
From the minute he first walked across the stage on draft night, the odds have been against the Arizona product.
For a Magic team that was tanking, admittedly or not – the goal was Andrew Wiggins. The ping pong balls would favor Cleveland, and when the bright-eyed, nineteen-year-old forward was selected with the fourth pick, many disliked him before even his first Summer League.
The Magic needed a scorer, as well as a leader, and Gordon was neither of those. His jump shot was sill very much a work in progress, and his tweener size made it tough to project his future. Even throughout his recent rise in celebrity status, Gordon has never been much of a talker.
The general rule of thumb for basketball, and one that has been echoed by Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, is that a team usually knows what to expect from a player after his rookie contract. For Aaron Gordon, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
For starters, Gordon is still only 20-years-old. Frank Vogel will be his fifth coach in the four years since leaving high school, and Sean Miller at Arizona may have been the most qualified so far. Every step along the way has carried different styles of play, different expectations, and different outcomes.
In high school and college he was able to have his way with defenses, relying on his athleticism and natural knack for rebounding to establish himself as a physical force on the boards. Never was this more evident than in his last game at 'Zona, a herculean performance that saw Gordon snag 18 rebounds as his team fell the Wisconsin Badgers, who lost in the Final Four to Kentucky.
During his rookie year, Gordon was caught in a flux. Injuries limited him to a mere 47 games, with just eight starts. Jacque Vaughn was fighting for his job, and James Borrego was just trying to hold the pieces together. Neither had the tools or the time to develop the young prospect into a serviceable NBA player.
It’s kind of funny that the bouncy gadget forward saw the biggest developmental spike under Scott Skiles. Skiles was often guilty of losing the forest in the trees – of selling out long-term gains for short-terms wins. He would give no credence to his players’ feelings, roles, or rhythms, yanking whole units with callous indifference.
The young forward didn’t see his first start of the year until the team was listless. He was injected into the Magic’s freefalling January with hopes that he may spark a second wind. Though Gordon’s efforts alone were not enough to revitalize the Magic, he did plenty enough to take fans’ breath away.
But what did we really learn about Aaron Gordon last year? It sure wasn’t anything new. He’s always been explosive, talented, and reckless with his body. The second half of last year didn’t show us a new Aaron Gordon, it just marked the first time the Magic coaching staff was smart enough to get out of his way.
He didn’t develop under Skiles – no one did. He didn’t gain confidence or clarity in his role; he just went out there and played.
Maybe the most exciting part of the Frank Vogel hire is his skill of player development. Vogel has been known to take players under his wing and put them in the best positions to succeed, from the offbeat personalities of Lance Stephenson and Monta Ellis, to the levelheaded George Hill and Paul George.
In fact it is Paul George that may be a window into Gordon’s future.
"We are going to put the ball in his hands a lot," Vogel told ESPN’s Zach Lowe. "We're going to use him like Paul George."
Just a few months ago, that statement would’ve been ridiculous. The Magic ended the season with an abundance of guards, not forwards, and the ball-pounding, glass-crashing Gordon looked to be a shoo-in to start at the four.
With each roster move this offseason, however, Gordon started to look smaller and smaller. Just when it seemed he had found his home, it was time to adjust again.
But this change seems to benefit Gordon, to cater to his wishes, even. During Orlando's Summer League, Hennigan said, "I think if you ask [Gordon], he’d prefer to play the three. We have all the confidence in the world in his ability to do that, and we love the fact he’s able to swing in between positions."
This new Aaron Gordon 2.0 looks to be an intriguing prospect. It’s doubtful he will ever shoot the ball like Paul George. George has a silky-smooth jumper and a fluid game that plays out like jazz. Gordon is rock and roll, or maybe even dubstep. He is violent, herky-jerky, and powerful. He’d rather elevate over a defender, than skillfully evade him.
This new Gordon will be a jack-of-all-trades; a ball-handling, rim-rattling, rebound-grabbing, three-shooting forward. He will truly be a positionless player. His natural defensive poise, coupled with athleticism means that he could one day guard 1-4 comfortably, and effortlessly switch on the perimeter. Even Skiles saw this when he repeatedly trusted the unproven sophomore to defend the last shot from the likes of Kawhi Leonard and other closers.
On the flip side, ball handling has been known to be the forbidden fruit of big men. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Gordon, fresh off his breakout season, letting a bit of this stardom go to his head. There have been countless examples of promising big men transformed into ball-hogging black holes of efficiency when given more freedom.
So begins year one of the real Aaron Gordon – unshackled from poor coaching, and unburdened by the weight of disappointing fans. He will be the cornerstone of this rock-pounding incarnation of Vogelball South. Though his ceiling is virtually limitless, he would be wise not to let it go to his head – the last player to view himself as irreplaceable wound up on a plane to Oklahoma City.