There’s never been any doubt about whether Aaron Gordon had the tools to be a star. Blessed with a 6-foot-9, 220-pound frame, a near-7-foot wingspan, rare lateral quickness and agility, and the kind of quick-twitch athleticism that can make you a Dunk Contest superhero, Gordon stepped into the NBA in 2014 looking like the model of a modern forward … provided he could develop sharp enough skills to pair with all that physical prowess.
Gordon spent two years trying to find his way in the league under three different head coaches for an Orlando Magic franchise that had spent several years adrift after Dwight Howard left town. He spent most of last season, his first under head coach Frank Vogel, miscast as a small forward in a gambit aimed both at getting as many Orlando big men as possible on the floor at once and at stretching his game as a playmaker, shooter, scorer and initiator.
Now in Year 4, the Magic need Gordon to make a leap if they’re to take advantage of a watered-down Eastern Conference and make their first playoff appearance in five years. On Tuesday night, he turned in the kind of performance that makes you believe he might be on his way.
Gordon got comfortable early against the Brooklyn Nets at Amway Center, taking advantage of Brooklyn’s noncommittal defense to score 14 points in 10 minutes on seven shots. Once he got warm, he stayed that way, hammering Brooklyn to the tune of a career-high 41 points on sterling 14-for-18 shooting in just under 37 minutes to lead the way in a 125-121 win.
He even hit what would prove to be the game-winner, a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer that put Orlando up by two with 34.8 seconds left:
That was Gordon’s fifth 3-pointer of the night in five tries, and it pushed him over the 40-point plateau. The perfect night from distance earned the career 29 percent long-range marksman an odd spot in franchise history, as the first Magic player ever to hit for 40-plus and go 5-for-5 or better from beyond the arc.
It’s not the kind of spot in which Gordon has found himself to this point in his career — game on the line, shot clock winding down, set up on the perimeter and waiting for the ball to come his way. But when you’re feeling it, you’re feeling it, and as Gordon told reporters after the game, he’s putting in the work to earn his teammates’ confidence in those spots. From Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:
“I just feel really good with my shot,” Gordon told reporters afterward. “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.” […]
“I’m happy for him,” [Magic center Nikola] Vucevic said. “He works really hard on that shot. You guys know from when he came to the league to now, it’s a big difference.”
You could see the difference before the closing seconds, too.
Focus on Gordon throughout the game and you could see him leaning forward, waiting, eager. It was the little things. The way he had his hands up as he spotted up away from the play action, so that he was ready to do something with the ball should the swing pass come his way. The way he kept moving along the arc on the weak side, trying to create more half-court spacing and better passing angles. The well-timed cuts through the paint when he saw his defender napping.
The quick trigger to rise and fire when the Nets defense (admittedly not the stoutest outfit in the NBA to start this season) sagged too far off at the arc, or to take advantage of cross-matches on smaller or slower defenders to bull his way to the basket en route to 10 free throw attempts. The increased confidence grabbing the ball off the rim — 14 rebounds on Tuesday, 10 on the defensive glass — and taking off for the other end, searching for early offense.
The tightened-up handle and the sense to know when to use it to pull back in transition, letting the undisciplined Nets flow past him to try to match up, only to leave a wide-open driving lane to the bucket. The willingness to keep taking what the defense offered him and to make them pay with quick decisions.
Gordon’s rhythm and flow on their own didn’t guarantee the Magic much. Orlando trailed by as many as 12 in the third quarter, struggling to slow the hard-charging Nets before storming back in the fourth behind timely scoring from Evan Fournier, who scored 12 of his 28 points in the final frame. But with the game in the balance, that rhythm, that confidence, enabled Gordon to make the play his team needed without hesitation.
Last season’s growing pains and last summer’s reps turned into instinct and action on Tuesday, and the result was the best Aaron Gordon we’ve seen so far. If he shows up more often, the Magic — now 3-1, and owners of the NBA’s third-most potent offense through the season’s first week — might actually be able to make some noise for the first time in years.
“From Day One of training camp this year, it’s been evident that [Gordon’s] a much-improved basketball player and playing at a high level and playing very confident,” Vogel said after the win, according to Robbins. “And if he just shoots it 100 percent from the 3-point line, we’re going to be OK.”
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