Aaron Gordon, Doug Gottlieb and an NBA CareerPosted by Andrew Murawa on June 16th, 2014
Doug Gottlieb has made his skepticism of Aaron Gordon’s NBA upside very clear. Check the following tweets for a glance at his feelings on the matter, and dig further through his timeline for more on the topic.
To be clear, these are perfectly reasonable opinions. And, just like I did back in the preseason when I questioned Gottlieb’s pick of California as the #10 team in the nation in his preseason poll, I’ll freely admit that Gottlieb is more often right than wrong and has probably forgotten more about the sport than I’ll ever know.
Gottlieb’s argument on Gordon boils down to the fact that the Arizona product is a tweener who can’t shoot the ball from distance nor score in the post. All of those points are perfectly reasonable. It’s true that at this time we’re not sure if Gordon will project as an undersized four or a powerful three at the next level. It’s also true that Gordon’s shot is, at best, a work in progress; personally I called it an offense that would make baby Jesus cry. And it is additionally true that Gordon is, let’s say, unpolished around the paint; his points in college came either from putbacks or athletic plays against overmatched defenders. I won’t make a single argument against any of those points.
But, here are the things that Gordon did in his lone year in Arizona that make me think he’s got big-time upside in the NBA. First, as Gottlieb readily concedes, Gordon has a terrific motor; effort is never going to be in question for this guy. Second, even with all the limitations to his game, every single time out there, he impacted the game positively for his talented squad. He wasn’t a prima donna who required 20 shots a game. He understood his role. He was more than happy at being something of a garbage man on offense. He was thrilled at embracing the role of defensive stopper on the other end. He showed terrific basketball instincts, capable of leaping above bigger players, grabbing a defensive rebound, turning immediately upcourt, pushing the ball with a solid handle, and then making consistently solid if not spectacular decisions with the ball in attacking the zone. Cut right to the chase, the dude’s game is certainly a work in progress, but his basketball IQ and his athletic upside provide him with the ability to either improve upon those weaknesses or effectively hide them through sheer guile.
It’s become almost cliché by now to compare Gordon’s NBA potential to Blake Grifffin. But, I won’t for a second deride such a comparison. Let’s call Griffin exactly what he is: an undersized NBA power forward without a particularly impressive wingspan who has turned into one of the best power forwards in the league based on terrific athleticism, an elite motor, and an above-average basketball IQ. You know what? Gordon checks every single one of those boxes. Undersized. Not that long. Athletic. Motor. Basketball IQ. Griffin came into the League with a jumpshot (and free throws) that was a liability, and for a time looked unfixable. Gordon will do much the same. But what made Griffin more than just your typical flash-in-the-pan dunker coming out of college was his ability to handle the ball effectively, make good decisions, defend like crazy and compete, compete, compete. I challenge you to look at where Griffin is today and not see, at the very least, a path for Gordon to eventually get to the same place. Sure, that jumper needs a lot of work, but Gordon’s ball-handling and decision-making credentials are bona fide. His motor is right there. And whatever weaknesses Griffin had at this point in his career, Gordon has the same.
But I also want to bring up another budding NBA star who compares well with Gordon: the San Antonio Spurs recently-minted Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. Coming out of San Diego State, the book on Leonard was pretty clear: tweener, great motor, great rebounder, solid handler for a frontcourt guy, can’t shoot a lick, unpolished offensive game. Now, to be clear, Leonard was never anywhere near as bad from the free throw line as Gordon was in his single season in Arizona, and that is certainly a red flag. Leonard has a vastly superior wingspan, despite Gordon checking in a bit taller, but beyond that, Leonard came into the NBA needing to prove that he could knock down outside shots in order to work his way on the court. And, for what it’s worth, in Leonard’s two seasons at San Diego State, he shot 25 percent from three, while Gordon – somehow – actually shot 35.6 percent (16-of-45) from deep in his lone season in Tucson. What draws to mind the comparison is the countless times I saw each of those guys sky for a rebound that a mere mortal never would have had a chance to grab, and then, not merely satisfied with securing the rebound, turn upcourt and turn into a playmaker with the ball in his hands in the open court. That? Those types of players are not merely a dime a dozen.
Furthermore, the comparison that has often been made in recent months to tear down Gordon has been to former Wildcat Derrick Williams, who has amounted to an NBA bust at this point in his career. I’m not buying this comparison at all. Williams, for the most part, played center at Arizona, with the ability to pull his guy away from the hoop and either knock down jumpers in his face or go around him. He also had a couple years to polish his game in Tucson without the hindrance of a bunch of other elite prospects around him, and he had the opportunity to make bigger, slower defenders look silly with his quickness and the offense he was placed in. Gordon, for his part, spent half the year playing against (and dominating) small forwards, and then the other half of his lone year in Tucson pounding away with power forwards down low. And Gordon more than held his own regardless of the type of player he was matched up against — for that matter, Gordon even spent his share of time checking point guards and shooting guards in the Arizona defensive scheme. Gordon ate ball screens for breakfast last season. Williams, for all of his offensive polish (and, make no mistake, he was spectacular his sophomore season – I mean, 60.1 percent from two, 56.8 percent from three? For what amounted to a center? On an Elite Eight team? An Elite Eight team that was a wide-open corner three away from the Final Four?), never physically and mentally dominated the way Gordon did. Williams put up all sorts of fantastical numbers; Gordon impressed with his domination of the on-court game even in the absence of those same numbers.
Sure. Gordon needs to significantly improve areas of his game (namely, shooting) in order to turn into a guy who can routinely have a positive in-game effect for his future NBA team. But he is so far along in other areas of his game, and he’s shown enough skill elsewhere, to indicate that not only is that jumpshot capable of coming along (remember, a guy like Luke Walton – hey, am I the first guy ever to compare Gordon to Cool Hand Luke? – was never as good of a three-point shooter as Gordon until his final season of his four-year career in Tucson), but the other parts of his game are good enough to make up for whatever shortcomings may take additional time to develop.