First there was Aaron Gordon’s failure to have what many believed would be his breakout season last year.
Then there was the infamous “whiteboard” incident hinting the Magic might be considering trading Gordon in the offseason.
And then there was the inability of Gordon and the Magic to reach an early extension before the season began.
All combined, many questions were left regarding Gordon’s development and his future. Questions that would be answered by his performance on the court this season. Well, Gordon began to answer those questions quite emphatically on Tuesday with a career-night in Orlando’s 125-121 win over the Nets.
The 22-year-old scored a career-high 41 points, shooting 14-for-18 from the field, to eclipse his previous high of 33 points set in December of 2016. Gordon hit all five of his three-point attempts, including the go-ahead three on a kick-out from Nikola Vucevic to give the Magic a 123-121 lead with 34.8 seconds remaining.
Gordon, who had missed the previous two games with a sprained ankle, also grabbed 14 rebounds, including a key putback dunk that cut the Nets’ lead to four earlier in the fourth. Gordon, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, became just the third NBA player aged 22 or younger since the 2012-2013 season to record 40+ points and 10+ rebounds in a game, joining two of the league’s brightest stars in Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns.
What was most encouraging about Gordon’s performance was than in came within the flow of the offense. Criticized at times last season for overdribbling and seemingly attempting to play “hero ball,” Gordon on Tuesday was the beneficiary of the Magic’s pacing and ball movement. He allowed the ball to find him by moving without the ball and staying active around the rim. And when the ball did find him, Gordon capitalized.
After entering the season shooting 28.9 percent from three in his career, Gordon showed no hesitation launching from downtown with the game on the line in the final minute. Improving his three-point shot was a point of emphasis for Gordon in the offseason. If Gordon, who has connected on six-of-seven attempts early in the season, continues to shoot with consistency from long range, an already surging Magic offense will further benefit from the open driving lanes and added post space that is generated by a stretch-four.
“I just feel really good with my shot,” Gordon said to reporters after Tuesday’s game. “I put in a lot of work. You guys know how hard I work. So yeah, it feels good to have a game like this. And I just want to continue to shoot the ball.”
Now in his fourth season, one game in no way definitively answers the lingering questions about his shooting ability, nor his future.
With Gordon having played under three different coaches in his first three seasons, and by playing out of position at small forward after last year’s offseason acquisition of Serge Ibaka, the front office in past years did no favors to aid in his development. And having been the face of the organization during what has been a tumultuous rebuild, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Gordon is just 22.
With continuity in the coaching staff and starting lineup, with an up-tempo pace that complements Gordon’s athleticism, and with plenty to prove before entering restricted free agency, Gordon is finally in an ideal position to thrive.
And perhaps this was the start of his breakout season.