Clips’ Gordon evolves into star scorer, defender

By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Eric Gordon got a whole lot more than a gold medal from his summer in Europe with the U.S. national team.

The Los Angeles Clippers’ soft-spoken guard also learned with certainty that he really can play with the world’s best. Gordon was the fourth-leading scorer and a key defensive player for the U.S. team, silencing critics who wondered if the Indiana product belonged in that uniform.

“It was a good confidence-booster,” Gordon said on the first day of the Clippers’ training camp. “It shows where I am in my career. I really know what I can do now.”

The Clippers are counting on him doing plenty for them this winter. Gordon has been a steady pro in his first two NBA seasons, averaging 16.4 points and 2.9 assists for two terrible teams, but general manager Neil Olshey wants and expects more when Los Angeles returns with a new attitude under new coach Vinny Del Negro.

“Eric’s aggressiveness at this level hasn’t been commensurate with his skill,” said Olshey, the longtime personnel executive who succeeded Mike Dunleavy. “He’s going to get that into his game now, and I’ll put him up against anybody in his draft class, and anybody with three years left on his deal. I think he’s as good as any of them, but in his first two years, he has deferred a lot to veterans.”

Olshey believes that mentality died in Europe, where Gordon came off the bench to average 8.6 points and 1.6 rebounds in the Americans’ nine victories.

Gordon’s 19 3-pointers were second on the team to leading scorer Kevin Durant, and he led the Americans in scoring twice — in their opener against Croatia and six days later against Tunisia. He made just six turnovers while repeatedly matching up against opponents’ toughest perimeter scorers despite his skinny 6-foot-3 frame.

“He was their best on-the-ball defender, and he didn’t miss a jump shot for a month and a half,” Olshey said.

Olshey already put the Clippers’ money where his mouth is, exercising Gordon’s $3.83 million option for the 2011-12 season Tuesday.

Gordon acknowledges his European adventure wasn’t like most 21-year-olds’ first trips abroad. The entire summer was a whirlwind of hotels, strange food and crazy crowds, with Gordon sometimes just trying to hang on from Barcelona to Greece to Istanbul, where the Americans beat the host Turkish team in the gold-medal game.

“They had horns, drums, everything,” Gordon said with a laugh. “You can play almost any instrument you want in there. The atmosphere is different than what we’re used to, but it was great. Actually, most of the other countries were cheering for us, at least until the last game.”

Gordon got a short break before returning to work with the Clippers at their Playa Vista training complex. Nearly the entire Clippers roster showed up several weeks before training camp this summer, and Gordon believes he’ll have no problem keeping up despite his extra work.

Del Negro plans to observe Gordon’s condition before deciding how hard he’ll push during camp.

“He’s had a very impressive summer,” Del Negro said. “I was very proud of what he did, and I think his game will continue to evolve. We don’t know yet how he’ll respond. He’s still young, but it’s a long season with a lot of expectations on him.”

Del Negro and Olshey also expect Gordon to take a larger leadership role this fall. Veterans Baron Davis and Chris Kaman already say Gordon is recognized as a leader by example, but they would love to see him step up vocally — something Gordon says he’s willing to do.

“I’m just trying to step it up even more now,” Gordon said. “I’m still young, but trying to be more vocal, to be more of a leader, is a big deal for me.”

Gordon didn’t have a high NBA profile before his adventures with the U.S. team. He isn’t even the most famous shooting guard in his own arena, otherwise known as The House That Kobe Built.

The Clippers hope that starts to change when Gordon grows into his achievements this summer.

“Part of what holds Eric back is that he’s got a quiet demeanor,” Olshey said. “He’s a kid from Indiana who just goes about his business, and I think that hurts him in people’s perceptions of what he can do. After his performance for Team USA, a lot of that anonymity is going to go away, but he still doesn’t make it about him. That’s why he’s a great guy to lead us in the future and change our culture.”

Updated 09/28/10