Early in the season I was offput by a number of Aaron Gordon’s deficiencies such as his broken shot, his willingness to launch long 2’s, and his mediocre size to defend NBA PF’s. But he had a strong close to the season and I started perceiving him in a new light. His shot remains a glaring wart, but let’s cast that aside for a moment and analyze his strengths.
Two of the hurdles to loving Gordon mid-season were his lackluster steal and block rates. There aren’t many players who become top end defensive wings in the NBA without posting a good steal rate in college. Arizona plays a non-gambling defense, but he nevertheless had a lower steal rate than his top defensive teammates such as Nick Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and TJ McConnell. This made it hard to feel great about him as a defensive prospect, especially when his block rate offered little hope for his potential as a rim protecting PF. But then he closed the season with a flurry of stocks to render his overall rates respectable, all while I decided that steals and blocks were an unfair way to evaluate his defensive potential in the NBA.
The Wildcat System
Arizona dominated the defensive end in a unique way: they led the NCAA in defensive eFG% without great rim protection, as their starting 7’0″ center Kaleb Tarczewski posted a measly 3.6% block rate. For reference, the best defensive eFG% teams in each of the prior 3 seasons were anchored by NBA draft picks with monster block rates: Jeff Withey (13.7%), Anthony Davis (13.7%), and Bernard James (13.5%). Arizona as a team had a mere 11.5% block rate.
Instead of protecting the rim, Arizona simply refused to let opponents get there. They closed out on 3 point shooters and used their quickness to contain penetration and funnel everything to the mid-range. And they weren’t giving up open mid-range shots, as they used their size and athleticism to contest everything. According to hoop-math.com, Arizona forced opponents to attempt a whopping 48.8% of their shots from mid-range (NCAA average: 29.3%), which were made at a paltry 32.0% (NCAA avg: 35.7%). They then would clean up the defensive glass with the 13th best DREB% in the NCAA. They rarely fouled with the 55th best defensive FT rate and managed to force an above average turnover rate at 118th in spite of steals being their lowest priority. Naturally they finished with the #1 defense in the NCAA, and it came in a flavor geared toward stopping quality competition since they took away everything that good offenses tend to value.
Let’s assess how Gordon fared at contributing to Arizona’s defensive goals:
-Containing penetration: Gordon rarely was beaten off the dribble as he moves well laterally and did well at cutting off opponent drives. When he faced Duke, Jabari Parker never came close to getting by Gordon when matched up and finished shooting 7/21 FG with 5 TOV’s. He also contested shots well as he rarely failed to closeout.
-Defensive rebounding: in spite of playing a fair amount on the wing, Gordon led his team in defensive rebounding rate at 19.1%, with 7 footer Kaleb Tarczewski finishing second at 16.9%.
-Not fouling: Gordon posted the lowest foul rate of all Arizona forwards, and was closer to Arizona’s guards than the bigs that he outrebounded:
It’s hard to argue that he did anything other than thrive defensively, as he excelled at all of his team’s primary objectives in spite of being the youngest player on the team. Not only did this help Arizona to the #1 defense in the NCAA, it was only Sean Miller’s first top 40 defense in 5 seasons at Arizona. Miller is one of the top coaches in college basketball and I love how he built his defense, but this is not a defense that can be readily replicated without a unique collection of talent. Gordon gets big time credit for his role here.
FIBA u19 Defense
Billy Donovan coached team USA to full court press where they used their physical advantages to force turnovers, generate easy buckets in transition, and blow the competition out of the water. Here is how each player’s respective steal rates compare to what they posted in the 2013-14 NCAA season:
Gordon racked up far more steals than a number of players who posted similar or better steal rates this past NCAA season. He only finished behind Marcus Smart and Elfrid Payton, who were two of the best ball hawks in all of college basketball. Even if the sample is small, Gordon is the only player who heavily strayed from expectation based on his NCAA steal rate.
If his performance at Arizona isn’t convincing that Gordon is a great defensive prospect, his FIBA stats should drive a nail in that coffin. Not only does this suggest that he may have been able to compile a much higher steal rate if he had been asked, but it also hints at a high level of coachability. At Arizona he was asked to contain penetration, rebound, and not foul, and he did all of the above. In Prague he was asked to apply pressure to force turnovers and he complied as he went on to win MVP of the tournament at age 17.
Based on the eye test, his physical profile, and all statistical indicators, I rate him as top end defensive wing prospect with a high floor and a high ceiling. There is a strong case to be made that he is the best defensive wing prospect in this year’s draft ahead of KJ McDaniels and Andrew Wiggins.
In my recent post dispelling common draft myths, I shared this tweet from draft statistical modeler Layne Vashro:
Gordon can handle and pass exceptionally well for an 18 year old of his size. He especially shined down the stretch, as he posted 46 assists and 42 turnovers in his first 30 games before finishing with 29 assists and 13 turnovers in his final 8 games. His PG skills were reputed to be strong entering the season, and it appears they improved a decent bit over the course of the season.
Gordon’s explosiveness made him a highly effective rim finisher, as he converted 72.9% of his rim attempts on the season. This is vastly superior to his similarly sized lottery peers such as Andrew Wiggins (63.6%), Jabari Parker (62.7%), and Noah Vonleh (59.3%). This will help keep his scoring efficiency afloat as he (hopefully) learns to score away from the hoop and improve his shot selection. He also is a strong offensive rebounder as he corralled 10.4% of his team’s misses.
In spite of his shooting deficiencies, there are multiple ways in which Gordon contributes on offense. His shooting might be a drag on spacing, but it does not condemn him to being a decisively bad offensive player as a whole.
The Shooting Conundrum
Earlier this season I wrote that Gordon’s shot is irreparably broken, and I would like to now take that back. It is broken, but not necessarily irreparable. He is only 18 and his form looks OK enough, his just shots don’t go in. This creates a few problems:
1) He will not space the floor cannot reliably make NBA 3 pointers
2) A willingness to attempt long 2’s can tank his efficiency
3) An inability to make free throws will prevent him from padding his TS% by drawing fouls
The glimmer of hope for his shooting is that he made 17/45 (35.6%) 3 pointers at Arizona. The unpleasant news is his FT shooting (76/180 = 42.2%) and non-rim 2PA’s (44/160 = 27.5%) are much larger samples at abysmal percentages.
Overall his shooting prospects seem grim, but he is not completely hopeless since shooting is the most volatile skill that occasionally lends itself to surprising levels of improvement. Given that he is the youngest prospect in the draft, we can open the door for a bit of extra optimism. As a college freshman Trevor Ariza shot 18/76 (23.7%) from 3 and 57/113 (50.4%) from FT. If you combine his age 27 and age 28 NBA seasons, he shot 39.7% from 3 on 707 attempts and 78.7% FT on 315 attempts. It took him 9 seasons, but he became a genuinely good shooter. That level of 180 simply isn’t possible with respect to basketball IQ, athleticism, or defensive instincts.
Gordon loosely compares to another poor shooting tweener who was undervalued in the draft– Kawhi Leonard. Leonard shot 25% from 3 in two seasons at SDSU, and then went on to shoot between 37.4% and 37.9% in each of his first 3 NBA season at San Antonio. Perhaps the Spurs saw something in Leonard’s form that they tweaked in a way that can be replicated with Gordon. Given the recent rise of analytics, it is worth wondering if new information can help teach players to make outlier-y leaps in their shooting ability.
In his pre-draft interview, Gordon expressed confidence that he will have his shot fixed by the start of his rookie season and even provided a detailed explanation of his recent adjustments. I have no idea whether his approach will make a meaningful difference, but it at least sounds more promising than taking a bunch of directionless practice reps and hoping for the best. On the downside, he calls the mid-range “a great shot,” which is a serious leak in his BBIQ that badly needs fixing.
It’s not difficult to envision a scenario where Gordon learns to hit 37%+ on corner 3’s and is coached into exercising discipline with respect to attempting long 2’s (just don’t unite him with Randy Wittman). In the scenario that his big wart is reduced to a smaller wart, he can easily become an impact player. Even if this fails to happen the majority of the time, the mere possibility is highly valuable for his draft stock.
I am flipping my story from Gordon’s shot being a debilitating wart to one that is less bad than the warts displayed by other top prospects such as Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. Given the volatile nature of shooting, I believe Gordon has the most upside of the trio. And I am not convinced that he has a lower median outcome than either, as spacing the floor is not a prerequisite to becoming a useful wing and neither Parker nor Wiggins are guaranteed to be starting caliber. It seems that there is a cognitive bias that being slightly above average shooters gives Wiggins and Parker a safeness to their draft stock, when in reality shooting is a) the most volatile trait and b) doesn’t guarantee offensive success on its own. Gordon can close the gap on the shooting discrepancy, but Wiggins will not catch Gordon in court vision or feel for the game and Parker will always lag in explosiveness and quickness that aid Gordon’s finishing and defense.
My preference is now to gamble on Gordon’s shot, as I have elevated him to #4 on my big board behind Joel Embiid, Dante Exum, and Marcus Smart.