Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Back from the All-Star break a young Orlando player starts cashing in some of the potential that had fans so hyped when they first pulled on the pinstripes. Who could forget the annual late-season surge from Elfrid Payton? Or how about the time we wondered whether Mario Hezonja was finally putting it together?
This time round it would appear that the player fueling fantasies is Aaron Gordon. It actually started just before the mid-season showcase, with a handful of strong performances from the Magic’s bouncy wing leading the team to the break. He’s largely continued that play in the three games since, encouraging fans to wonder whether this time might be different.
In many circles of Magic conversation, AG already has a bit of a reputation as an inconsistent player who, down the season’s stretch, teases potential that is never fully realized. In actuality, it’s an assessment that’s a little unfair; Gordon’s performance has been basically as likely to be up as down post-All-Star break in seasons past, with upward trajectories in ‘17 and ‘19 balanced by an alarming dip in ‘18.
Instead, Gordon’s greatest flaw might be the gulf that separates his best performances from his worst. When he’s good, he’s great: dynamic, incisive, and a two-way handful. When he’s bad, he’s terrible: either utterly invisible or awkwardly obvious in his inefficiency. His middle ground is mainly memorable for what it makes us realize we’re missing, both good and bad.
All of which, to be totally honest, is a long way of asking a familiar question. So let’s just put it out there: are we seeing something from AG? Is it worth getting excited about or should we just enjoy the run while it’s happening? Let’s find out.
Let’s start by simply looking at the statistics. Over his last five games Gordon has (mostly) been a monster, averaging 22.6 points per-game on 53.8% shooting from the field. He’s nudged his number of trips to the line up to four per contest, while also converting from deep on an impressive (and unsustainable) 61.1% of his attempts. On the glass he’s been able to add 10.0 rebounds each night, including a whopping 3.6 on the offensive glass. Additionally, he’s also flashed both playmaking — 6.0 assists against just 1.6 turnovers — and disruptive defense, racking up 1.0 steals and 1.6 blocks to go along with the eye-catching offensive numbers, including a potential game-saving block against the Nets. He’s been a genuine two-way presence. (And that stretch can even be extended to AG’s last 10 games: 19.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists, 46.7 FG%, 41.5 3PT%).
All of these obviously compare incredibly favorably to his body of work across the season. Before this stretch of torrid play got Magic fans dreaming of a switched flip, Gordon had been having a disappointing campaign. Points, assists and shooting percentages were down across the board (and still are!). Familiar warts were still evident in his game; he simply hadn’t demonstrated the evolutionary development to suggest he could be a featured piece on a contending side.
These games give some hope that his best may still be to come. It’s the smallest of sample sizes, but the fact remains that he’s proven himself capable. At this stage it’s essentially going to come down to consistency, and whether or not such performances are replicable.
Drawing any real conclusions about the likelihood of Gordon sustaining this current success would be incredibly difficult — yes, small sample size! — but it can still be instructional to look at the manner in which he’s come by this uptick in production. Is a blueprint evident?
There are two primary reasons that stand out as the keys that have unlocked AG in his last five games, and they’re both related to shooting. Firstly, his three-point accuracy is a huge outlier relative to expectations. Although Gordon has actually trimmed the number of long-distance attempts he’s been taking — down from 4.0 per game to 3.6 across the stretch — he’s been making them at an incredible rate: 11 of 18 for a mark of 61.1%. To put that in some context, it’s more than twice as accurate as he has been in a handful of seasons, and accounts for just over 2.5 extra points per-game than what he’s been generating from deep this season. Take out his empty night against the Mavs and his accuracy actually rockets past 70%. He’s scorching.
Before we go any further, let’s clarify something: these good times aren’t going to last. Gordon has an extensive record proving definitively that he is not a reliable three-point marksman. He’s never once shot above league average from deep, so assigning some portentous meaning to this hot streak can only lead to a broken heart. It’s a nice wave to ride while it lasts, but its inherent unsustainability makes it not long for this world. Expect him to tumble soon.
However, the three-ball isn’t the only factor contributing to the strong offensive play he’s demonstrated recently. In fact, more meaningful numbers can be found much closer to the hoop. Over his last five games, Gordon has taken 51.2% of his total field-goal attempts from within five feet of the rim, making them at a rate of 60%. This is actually a little down on his season average of 64.7% on such shots, but the sheer volume relative to his season shot profile — with just 36.6% of all attempts normally coming from the hoop’s closest quarters — has seen his scoring surge. Digging deeper we can also see that 37 of his 41 most recent attempts at this distance have actually come from inside the restricted area, testament to his willingness to target the heart of the opposition’s defense.
AG has been aggressive in getting into the paint, putting himself in a position either to finish with a high-percentage shot or to generate contact and free-throw attempts. He’s largely cut the mid-range out of his diet entirely, settling for just seven total attempts between 16 and 24 feet. It’s an efficient combination, and one eminently suited to a player with his athletic profile. He’s looking like a player who is figuring out how to play within himself while maximizing his skillset on the basketball court.
The Eye Test
AG’s third quarter against the Hawks can be looked at as a microcosm of this recent surge. In the period he had 18 points, 6 rebounds (3 offensive), an assist, a steal and a block, helping to stake the Magic to a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The box score numbers could even have been a little better, as on two early possessions he was able to push the pace in transition and find a teammate in an advantageous position; despite not being awarded an assist on either play, it was his decisive decision-making that generated the opportunity.
By and large, Gordon got his points during this quarter in a way that made for pleasing viewing. He was relentless in hunting out the transition game, a factor that his rebounding and disruptive defensive presence allowed for. In the halfcourt, when the two-man game yielded no results he put the ball on the floor and attacked the hoop, finishing in the lane or absorbing the contact and getting to the line. Three times he used his athletic prowess to secure offensive boards, either swooping in from the weakside or boxing out mismatches to generate second chance opportunities. He also drilled the pair of wide-open three-point chances that came his way, taking advantage of the time and space a collapsed, scrambling defense offered him.
Importantly, Gordon had zero turnovers and just two missed shots during the quarter: a drive he couldn’t finish going left and a 12-foot jumper he short-armed with the shot-clock expiring. Even then, this last one was a shot he resorted to only when a countered drive and circumstances conspired; he was actually looking to get to the rack.
Missing were the contested threes early in the possession. The over-dribbling on the perimeter. The shots not in rhythm. The warts that have so frequently frustrated Magic fans. Instead, Gordon got his points with energy, effort and execution, dominating the game without dominating the ball. It speaks to his assortment of skills that he was able to do so.
Sometimes a five-game stretch is just that: a spurt to be enjoyed in the moment, but no more laden with meaning than any other random five-game sample. Gordon has proven himself capable of having blistering performances before — even in clumps! — but he hasn’t yet shown that they’re anything more than a tantalizing burst of potential.
It might be too much to expect a six-year veteran to suddenly put it all together and ascend to a level of play it didn’t seem they would ever be capable of reaching. It’s almost certainly too much. But sports fandoms live forever in hope, and Central Florida is no different. AG’s just 25. He’s been yanked around by different coaches and systems. He’s shown flashes. Maybe this is the year it coalesces into something permanent.
Whether it’s implemented is now what matters.