As an advocate of prospect intelligence, I would like to clarify that the optimal measurement should not derive from a player’s ability to give an impressive interview or ace an IQ test. It should stem from how well the player implements his intelligence on the basketball court. There are plenty of intelligent people who allow their intelligence to be undermined by whatever wants they have as a human being, and consequently do dumb things. Conversely, PJ Hairston’s intelligence could be questioned given his inability to stay out of trouble this summer. But he is smart enough to grasp that when he has enough space to get off a 3 pointer, it is a good decision to pull the trigger. Consequently he scores with a combination of volume and efficiency that is reserved for high IQ players, so his basketball IQ deserves credit for this aspect of his game.
Aaron Gordon often gets lauded for his intelligence, and I do agree that he conveys such in interviews when he speaks with poise and confidence. But he also has a reputation as an intelligent basketball player, as his coach declared “Aaron’s greatest intelligence lies in his mind” and DraftExpress lists “Very intelligent and mature player, despite his age” as a strength. I take exception to these assertions based on his shot selection:
He is averaging 5.8 shots per game away from the rim with an eFG of 27.4%, as well as a historically bad FT% of 42.2%. Consequently, he has a putrid TS% of 47.0% in spite of his scintillating rim finishing ability. For reference the next lowest TS% among projected 1st rounders is James Young @ 53.5%. He idolized Magic Johnson as a kid, and he values versatility as he does not want to get pigeonholed to one spot. Unfortunately for him, there is only one spot on the floor from which he scores effectively, so perhaps he should warm up to the possibility of self-pigeonholing.
It could be argued that he’s young and he is trying to develop his shooting ability to become a more complete player, such that he is an effective shooter in his prime. I would counter that he should abandon all hope of ever becoming a useful long range shooter in the NBA, because his shot is irreparably broken. I cannot find any past prospect who shot < 50% at the free throw line as a college freshman and went on to become a successful NBA shooter. 40something FT%’s are reserved for the most woefully inept shooters of all time. Even Josh Smith shot 68.8% from the line as an NBA rookie. Dwight Howard shot 67.1% and Shaq shot 55.6% as a college freshman. Ben Wallace is the worst NBA free throw shooter of all time (min 500 attempts) and he barely had a lower freshman FT% than Gordon at 40.7%. The 2nd through 5th worst shooters: DeAndre Jordan (43.7%), Chris Dudley (46.7%), Eric Montross (61.2%), and Steven Hunter (70.7%) all sported better FT%’s than Gordon.
Given how historically inept Gordon’s shooting ability is, consider how insane it is that he attempts nearly 6 jump shots per game. If any of the aforementioned bricklayers ever attempted a jump shot they likely would have been benched, yet Gordon includes it as a regular part of his game.
Blake Griffin is often cited as his upside comparison, but Gordon’s propensity to launch bricks away from the hoop leaves his production miles below that of Griffin as a freshman. Note that SOS is kenpom.com’s average defensive rating of opponents:
Not only did Griffin convert a higher % of his shots, he got off a higher volume of quality looks. Gordon is light years behind freshman Blake, and that’s before Blake made a huge leap as a sophomore and went on to be selected #1 overall. And even though Blake is not regarded as much of an NBA defensive player, he did get more blocks (3.3% vs 3.0%) and steals (2.1% vs 1.2%) than Gordon.
To offer a more realistic comparison, Gordon’s freshman stats are eerily similar to those of Josh Smith as an NBA rookie. Note that usage and turnover calculations vary at different sources. Earlier I compared Gordon to Griffin based on statsheet.com stats, now I will compare him to Smith based on sports-reference.com stats for the sake of maintaining like comparisons.
This comparison should absolutely frighten GM’s interested in Gordon. While being just 9 months older, Smith posted a better TS% on not much worse usage + turnovers considering the competition rift. While Gordon is lauded for his passing ability, it is also the strength of Smith’s perimeter game. This does not bode well, seeing that Smith was playing vastly superior competition and still is a major drag offensively today. In my recent podcast with Robert Eckstut and Seth Partnow, I mentioned Smith as a Gordon comparison and Robert astutely noted that does not sound good. Smith is only a useful player because of his elite defensive playmaking ability, without a significantly positive impact on that end he would be worthless.
Gordon has contributed toward Arizona having the best defense in the country (as per kenpom.com), and he has the physical tools to be a positive defensive player in the pros. But in spite of the credit Gordon deserves for his role in Arizona’s awesome defensive scheme of funneling opponent shot attempts to the midrange, this is not enough to project him as a Josh Smith level difference maker, as both his steal and block rates are inferior to that which Smith posted as an NBA rookie. If Gordon becomes a neutral or slight positive defensively in the NBA, that will not nearly make his offense worth stomaching at any draft slot, let alone a top 10 one.
Gordon’s prospective value lies in the possibility that his NBA coach convinces him to abandon his appalling shot and operate strictly in the post. He needs to let go of his desire to be Magic Johnson, accept his role as an elite rim finisher, and start adding muscle and working on his post moves. It is difficult to assess the likelihood of such an outcome, as it has been a common perception that Josh Smith would be great if he fell out of love with his shot for his entire career. Yet here we are in his 10th NBA season, and Kirk Goldsberry is making Smith shot charts that are as hilarious as ever.
Teams interested in Gordon will need to explore his coachability and flexibility via interview and feedback from his coach. But without an expressed willingness to abandon his perimeter pursuits, I simply wouldn’t draft him. For now it’s worth wondering what he brings that other toolsy dunkers lacking range such as Montrezl Harrell and Jerami Grant do not. Their lack of range may be problematic for their NBA value, but at least they don’t exacerbate it by insisting on being perimeter players. The world already has one Josh Smith, and I don’t see the particular need to add another.