Aaron Gordon is a defensive 3, at least

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic, DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

Jan 29, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) controls a ball as Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) tries to defend during the second quarter in a game at Air Canada Centre. The Orlando Magic won 114-113. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Gordon‘s position has not made itself evident through 50 games. One thing is clear about it though — Gordon is a strong perimeter defender.

Aaron Gordon always seems in the right spot, yet always out of place.

That is the definition of a tweener. He is a player so full of potential and so full of opportunity, it is hard to figure out where best to put him. And it is easy to put his potential ahead of his actual ability.

Much of this critical third season for Gordon has been about where exactly to put this versatile young forward. The Orlando Magic had spent much of the first two years of his career playing him primarily, but not exclusively, as a power forward. It seemed he fit a new mold of 4, able to pop out to the perimeter but still better grounded near the basket. Not to mention athletic enough to defend multiple positions.

After acquiring Serge Ibaka, coach Frank Vogel had different ideas. He made him specifically a small forward, envisioning a different kind of player than before. General manager Rob Hennigan would later call this move a “development opportunity.”

The roster crunch pushing him to the perimeter certainly has had its ups and downs.

The third-year player who was expected to make something of a leap in his role has struggled to find his footing. His offensive numbers have lagged, improving a little bit over his first two injury-plagued years, but still at career-best numbers.

The debate among Magic fans continues about Gordon and whether he truly is a small forward and how the Magic should use him continues.

It remains unclear whether this whole experiment will work.

But there is one facet where the Magic have found success playing at the 3. And it may very well be enough to merit continuing the experiment even into the offseason.

Gordon has shown elite ability defensively. And there is every indication this will continue as he improves his technique and gains experience.

This is a role he relishes immensely.

“When I can play one on one defense and guard my man, I’m a pretty good defender,” Aaron Gordon said after helping hold Rudy Gay to 16 points on 6-for-13 shooting and three turnovers in a win over the Sacramento Kings in November. “The physicality of the game was to my liking.

“I love it,” he added. “It’s a physical game. It’s fun to me.”

Gordon takes his pride on the defensive end. And he has all the physical tools to be a dominant force on that end. And, slowly but surely, the stats to back it up.

And the more he thrives defensively, the harder it is to move him off the perimeter.

The Magic very well may have found their perimeter stopper. Now they just have to stick to keeping him at the 3 to use him there. Or find a way to take advantage of those skills while playing him elsewhere.

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic, Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Jan 13, 2017; Portland, OR, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00)] defends Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) in the first half at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Numbers

Aaron Gordon’s defensive reputation is growing. The Orlando Magic already put him on the best perimeter player in most games and he is a key part of the Magic’s defensive strategy.

Gordon is possibly the best perimeter defensive player on the team. He is giving up 41.2 percent on shots overall, the league average is 45.2 percent.

This is an imperfect measure of course. NBA.com Player Tracking cameras credit whoever defended a field goal attempt as the closest player to someone who takes a shot.

It does not always tell anyone exactly who had responsibility for whom defensively.

But there are some numbers that might suggest Gordon is not as strong defensively as the eye test would suggest.

According to Basketball-Reference, Gordon has a -0.4 defensive box plus minus. Meaning his contributions make the Magic 0.4 points per 100 possessions worse than i fhe were an average player. If this keeps up, it would be the first negative box plus-minus of his career. Past the midpoint of the season, he is on pace for fewer defensive win shares than he had last year.

Yet, observationally, Gordon has played strong defense. And perhaps unlike last year, he is consistently defending the best player on the opposing team. It was Gordon locking up James Harden, Andrew Wiggins, C.J. McCollum and Kevin Durant.

For a 21-year-old, that is very impressive. There is no reason to believe Gordon cannot get better. And his strength on defense is part of why the Magic felt comfortable moving him to the perimeter.

The Tape

Watching Aaron Gordon play defense is beautiful to watch. And no performance of his may have been as impressive as his game against James Harden and the Houston Rockets in early January.

Gordon helped hold Harden to 5-for-15 shooting and 0-for-8 from beyond the arc with just six free throw attempts. It was a team effort to keep Harden down (and the Magic lost anyway after they lost track of Ryan Anderson a few times). Gordon though set the tone with his defense as he has often throughout the season.

In the play above, Gordon chases Harden to the corner and does a good job keeping his feet and his hands from reaching to force Harden into a difficult step-back 3-pointer. It was like that for much of the night for Harden.

Gordon kept that pressure on him and on plenty others this year. He does this using his mix of athleticism, speed and discipline. Uncharacteristic discipline for a player so young.

In this play, Gordon is matched up with Damian Lillard. He is not pressing up, an advantage he can use because of his length and size over Lillard. He also has Nikola Vucevic in help side behind him. Gordon keeps good balance and stays on Lillard’s left hand, forcing Lillard to step back or move toward his help. Gordon then shows what makes him a special defender, closing that gap quickly and blocking the shot.

This is par for the course when it comes to Gordon. But it is also clear there are areas he can improve.

Gordon still struggles working around screens. He did a decent job staying on C.J. McCollum’s hip during that win over the Portland Trail Blazers, but McCollum got going eventually (scoring 26 points in that game).

Similarly, Gordon struggled against Kevin Durant. Then again, who does not?

Gordon could keep his position, but still can get undisciplined with his hands. Elite players like Durant know how to take advantage of those brief moments of imbalance. And while Gordon has sometimes gotten steals, his tendency to reach is perhaps his biggest weakness in his on-ball defense.

The potential is clearly there. Durant scored — and had plenty of points in that game — but Gordon never made anything easy. Gordon’s reputation is quickly growing.

The Future

It is clear Aaron Gordon has a lot of potential defensively. At 21 years old, he has gained his coach’s trust to defend the best players in the league. Only with rare exception is Gordon not in the game guarding whoever is the hottest or best player that evening.

Doing that with a coach with the defensive reputation that Frank Vogel has is even more impressive. Vogel is confident about at least one big element of his perimeter defense thanks to Gordon. He has stated publicly Gordon will defend the best player on the other team.

If Gordon has defined anything about himself, it is this. He can defend the best small forwards and perimeter players in the league on the ball. While he is pretty consistent on this front, he should only continue to get more consistent from here.

And this is a challenge he relishes.

“Frank can put me on whoever,” Gordon said early this season as he established his bona fides. “I’m ready for that challenge. Eventually, I want to be a defensive player of the year. It starts one step at a time. To be DPOY is a goal. I don’t think it’s selfish. I would love to be DPOY. It is a long way to go from here. There are a lot of things I need to fix technique-wise, mechanically. Frank’s trust in me means a lot to me. I’m going to do the best for my team no matter who I guard.”

This is no surprise. The product of a lot of Gordon’s athleticism gives him the physical advantage to be a stellar defensive player.

Danny Chau of The Ringer spoke with the scientists at P3 Performance before the season and discovered they have never seen anything quite like Gordon.

According to data compiled by P3 Applied Sports Science provided to The Ringer, Gordon’s fastest time in his slide agility test (the speed in which he can move laterally 5 yards, change direction, and slide back) was clocked at 2.49, roughly a tenth of a second faster than the average NBA guard’s. He knows what separates him from the rest of the league and isn’t bashful about it. “I’m a world-class athlete,” Gordon said. “My speed, my strength, and my ability to jump [are things] that not a lot of people in this world have.”

Barring injury, his freak athleticism hasn’t yet reached its peak, which is terrifying. Gordon’s physical capabilities resound in his ability to chase a block or throw down a putback even when he mistimes his jump, but they aid him most in the intangible aspects of his player development. His athleticism affords him time and a greater margin for error.

Gordon’s athleticism is off the charts. It is not just about his incredible hops that make him the favorite to win the dunk contest this year.

If there is hope for the Magic it is in Gordon and what he can become.

His development has been slow. He has had to play with the pressure of being the fourth pick from the 2014 Draft.

With even just a little more offensive development, he could be a really special. And that leads to the ultimate question left for Gordon this season.

Jan 20, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA;Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) drives to the basket as Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) defends during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 112-96. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 20, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) drives to the basket as Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) defends during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 112-96. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

THE Question

Not much is still known about Aaron Gordon or what he can be or where his future is. The Orlando Magic’s decision to play him at the 3 has seemingly opened up more possibilities while also raising more questions about where he fits in the modern NBA.

Gordon is a tweener. And the Magic have only made his “tweener-ness” more confusing this year with his success and failures at the position.

His offense is more than a work in progress. It is unclear whether he can expand his game on the perimeter consistently. But one thing is very clear: His defense

But one thing is very clear: His on-ball defense is very good. It is trending toward elite. And for that reason, it would seem playing him at small forward makes sense and continues to make sense.

“That’s the value in moving him to small forward — he’s bigger, stronger, and longer than most of the guys he’s guarding,” Vogel told Kurt Helin of Pro Basketball Talk. “He’s got good size to him, where if he’s guarding power forwards and doing a good job maybe he’s undersized against most of those guys. There is value with what we’re doing with him playing small forward….

“He’s got all the athleticism in the world to do it, and it’s not been about blitzing pick-and-rolls and banging in the post, but about chasing guys off screens and guarding the ball.”

That fit feels very natural. And if there is one thing anyone can definitively say about Gordon it is that his perimeter defense on wing players is a necessity.

Gordon is a small forward . . . defensively.

That remains a challenge Gordon looks forward to every night. He wants to be Defensive Player of the Year. He has the attitude that he will start his game defensively more than offensively.

“If they want to attack me, so be it,” Gordon said. “Go for it. It’s not going to be an easy look for you, I will tell you that much.”

Where Gordon ends up for his career remains a mystery. He has found his place on one end of the floor. And that might be where he makes the rest of his career.

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