As a freshman at Oklahoma, Blake Griffin averaged 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds a game. While those numbers were by no means pedestrian, they didn’t suggest he would become the first player chosen in the NBA draft a year later or that he would go on to transform the Los Angeles Clippers from a long-running joke into a 57-win team.
Aaron Gordon’s statistics this past season as a freshman at Arizona were even less eye-popping. His 12.4-point average wasn’t good enough to lead the Wildcats in scoring.
But his raw athleticism, ability to defend multiple positions and non-stop engine have prompted comparisons to Griffin and made the 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward a certainty to go no later than eighth overall in the first round Thursday night. The Orlando Magic, who haven’t had a rebounding and shot-blocking forward of note since the days of Bo Outlaw, could do worse than to take him with the first of their two lottery selections at No. 4.
Gordon’s vertical leap at the draft combine was measured at 39 inches, and he has a 6-foot-11 wingspan. Although he lacks the strength of Kentucky’s Julius Randle, who is likely to be drafted ahead of him, Gordon does so many things well while displaying a team-first attitude that he’ll be hard for anyone from the Magic on down to pass up.
Gordon was the leading rebounder for an Arizona team which started its season 21-0. But it’s what he can do after grabbing rebounds which makes him special. He can start a fast break by himself or fill the lanes on a fast break with ease. Some scouting reports have called him a player who is just as comfortable throwing the alley-oop as he is finishing it.
On defense, he is versatile enough to guard smaller players on the perimeter as well as hold his own in the low post. And his ability to almost always make the right play is a rare trait in someone so young.
He shot an abysmal 42.2 percent from the free-throw line, and he appeared to lose confidence in his jumper as the season went on. But the same trainer who works with Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors has been trying to improve Gordon in that area. Like Indiana’s Noah Vonleh, another forward who’s bound to be a lottery pick, Gordon is a respectable 3-point shooter.
Although he’s a good passer and doesn’t commit many turnovers, he needs to develop more of a low-post game. Being a phenomenal dunker will only get him so far, especially with opposing teams certain to try sending him to the free-throw line as much as possible at first.
Tobias Harris and 2012 first-round pick Andrew Nicholson combined for only 47 blocked shots between them last season. Gordon had a relatively modest 39 blocks while playing an average of more than 31 minutes in 38 games, but it’s what he does in so many other areas on defense that would benefit a team which frequently had trouble getting stops in the fourth quarters of close games. While he’ll probably never blossom into a 20-point scorer, that’s not what the Magic need right now unless they plan to trade up and pick Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker.
WHY THE MAGIC SHOULD AVOID HIM
The stock of the top projected power forwards is bound to rise now that center Joel Embiid, who was regarded as a good bet to go No. 1 overall, underwent foot surgery. Gordon could develop into a solid pro, but is he worth this high a pick? The Magic may be better off taking Dante Exum or Marcus Smart to strengthen themselves at guard.
Gordon’s brother, Drew, has played professionally in Serbia, Turkey and Italy after a college career at UCLA and New Mexico. His sister, Elise, played at Harvard.