Aaron Gordon is finding his place in the NBA

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

Amidst a turbulent season for the Orlando Magic, Aaron Gordon is making lemonade out of his tenure at small forward — carving out a distinct role for himself as a top-tier defender.

The most important part of sustaining a successful NBA career is creating an identity. Unless you are LeBron James and can do just about everything at an elite level, the difference between an Anthony Bennett and a Robert Horry is whether a player can find one or two things at which he can excel and use that to carve out a niche.

If a player is not quite a perennial All Star, having a niche is what makes teams want to trade for you, sign you and give you important long-term roles. Even Kwame Brown, the notorious draft “bust,” managed to sustain a long career because he settled into roles that highlighted his defense and rebounding.

Aaron Gordon’s ceiling is still much higher than that. But finding a niche is still is a huge and important step for any young player, especially for one whose place in the NBA and on the Orlando Magic has been so unstable and contested.

He has plenty of time left to develop a consistent shot and to improve his ball-handling skills in the hopes of becoming an All-Star-caliber player, but even if that never happens, Gordon can hang his hat on his elite perimeter defense.

Playing small forward has given Gordon his fair share of troubles.

Early in the season, he showed he clearly does not have the skill set to play the “Paul George” role coach Frank Vogel initially asked of him. His three-point shooting and pick-and-roll ball handling, among other things, have ranged anywhere from mediocre to near abysmal.

But, because of the team’s awkward frontcourt construction, he remains at that position.

It is obviously not a good fit for his offensive game, but playing the 3 might help him continue to develop tools he will need to sustain a long career. If he can solidify his place as a strong wing defender, that will give the Magic good reason to keep him around for a long time.

Gordon’s niche

The first time the Magic played the Houston Rockets this season, Gordon showed that he does not only have the physical tools to be a good defensive player, but that he has the will and intelligence to become elite.

Against multiple MVP candidates this year, including the Rockets’ James Harden, Gordon has proven he has IQ and discipline beyond his years. His work against Harden specifically is a great case study in the improvements he has made.

The infamously crafty guard just could not get it going the first night they met, as he finished 5 for 15 from the floor and 0 for 8 from three. Admittedly, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder had taken his Rockets right down to the wire the night before so Harden’s legs might not have been at their freshest.

But, fatigue alone does not account for Harden having arguably his worst game of the season.

When they met again on Feb. 7, Gordon had to leave early because of an injury — a bone bruise in his foot that seemed to be a recurring problem for some time. Up to that point, he had been defending Harden just as well.

Harden leads the league in free throw attempts per game, at around 11. Baiting defenders into contact, especially beyond the three-point line, is a huge part of his game. Even good defenders, if they aren’t disciplined enough, often fall victim to his shrewd flailing of limbs.

Over one and a half games, Gordon fouled him only once. That says a lot about the amount of brains and deliberation he puts into his defense.

In the video below, Gordon uses his length to trap Harden in the corner while keeping his hands up and back to avoid a foul. He stays balanced and smothers Harden without so much as sniffing contact.

Gordon stays completely upright when he contests the shot and keeps his balance even after the release. In doing so, he forces Harden to arc the shot over his towering length without giving him a chance to manipulate a shooting foul.

“Just keeping my hands out of the cookie jar – that’s the main thing,” Gordon said to OrlandoMagic.com writer John Denton on defending Harden. “When you’re in a legal guarding positioning with the arm bar, he’ll make that illegal by sweeping through and using his forearm to draw fouls. I just kept my hands out of the way, (make him) try to finish over the top and use my physicality to my advantage.”

The first time he faced DeMar DeRozan this season, DeRozan scored 31. The second time, he went 6 for 18 from the field for 22 points (only two of the six fouls DeRozan drew were from Gordon).

On the play below, Gordon stays right on him, and without getting his hands caught in the aforementioned cookie jar, he forces Derozan into an off-balance shot.

If you did not know any better you might have thought there were magnets connecting the two’s limbs together. Gordon’s reactions were that quick.

Plenty of prospects come into the league with all the physical tools — length, strength, speed, lateral quickness — to be great defenders. What many of them fail to develop is the desire, the IQ, and the instincts necessary to be great defenders. Gordon is displaying all those intangibles.

Perception over reality?

Bothering shots and giving scorers a difficult time sometimes does not show up in box scores. Most advanced defensive metrics do not grade him very well because he does not block shots or force turnovers like other elite defenders, or even as much as he did last season. Additionally, playing with a poor defensive team skews these numbers downward.

For those reasons, his defensive box plus-minus and his defensive rating are career lows.

Because of disappointing performances so far from Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, the team’s primary rim protectors, Gordon’s impact is limited. The two big men were theoretically great fits for a modern NBA defense because of their quick feet, length and strength, but they have not lived up to expectations.

Until he plays alongside better defensive bigs, his and the Magic’s defensive numbers will continue to pay the price. But there is no denying what he has already accomplished individually.

That aside, he still has some kinks to work out in his individual game. For example, even though he could take Harden and DeRozan one-on-one, both players were able to use screens to throw him off and score easy buckets.

Here, Gordon goes under a screen Nene sets for Harden. When you are facing one of the best shooters in the game, that is a huge mistake.

He almost recovers in time to bother the shot, but that was not the only time Gordon had trouble with a screen.

In the clip below, he simply gives DeRozan way too much time to drive and get a shot off.

Plays like that are what allow many of Gordon’s matchups to score and get hot (see: DeRozan’s 31-point game in December).

His size makes it harder to get over screens. Better rim protection behind him or bigs who could defend better on switches would be a huge help here. But he still has room to grow.

A real comparison

Paul George ironically might offer Gordon a blueprint for success on defense. The two have virtually identical measurables (both are listed as 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds), but George’s footwork is more advanced.

In this video, George gets right around Clint Capela’s tough screen and funnels Harden to the Pacers’ young shot blocker Myles Turner. He stays attached to his hip and cuts off any passing lanes to Capela.

Because of George’s defense here, Harden does not get an open three, he does not get a clean chance at the rim, and he has no chance at throwing a lob. Partial credit goes to the Indiana Pacers’ schemes certainly, but none of this can happen without George getting around Capela’s screen.

On a nearly identical play, a Capela-Harden high screen-and-roll, Gordon’s footwork prevents him from getting around the pick as quickly as he needs to defend the play effectively.

The difference between the two plays is that on the first, George gets around the screen but willingly eases off of Harden. That way he cuts off a lane to Capela, preventing a lob. And because he does not have to worry about Capela, Turner can stop Harden at the rim by forcing him to finish with his non-dominant hand.

On the second play, Gordon is forced by the screen to give Harden enough space to take Nikola Vucevic one-on-one and draw the foul.

Because George got around that screen, Harden ended up with a subpar shot and a missed layup. Because Gordon could not get around the screen as quickly, Harden was able to dictate the terms of engagement, finish with his left (dominant) hand and complete the and-one.

Sometimes a good screen is just a good screen. There is not much an individual defender, no matter how great, can do about that. That is why team defense and schemes are so important.

But if Gordon can do a better job of handling screens, whether it is in his decision making or just physically getting over them, he will be able to give scorers even more fits.

Picking at these minor shortcomings in Gordon’s 2016-17 campaign feels like splitting hairs. Despite him not grading well in advanced metrics, his opponent field goal percentage is right up with the elite.

Looking exclusively at opponent field goal percentage to evaluate defense is a deeply flawed approach, but it is an important piece of the larger puzzle. It shows how well an individual player can bother shots regardless of team defense.

For Gordon, understanding that the players shoot 4.5 percentage points worse when he defends them is a reason for even more optimism.

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

Growing his niche

Although Aaron Gordon has not been what the Magic have hoped as a small forward on offense, sometimes you just cannot fit a square shape into a round hole.

At this point in his career, handling the ball and shooting just is not part of his identity, and that is fine. He is still a young player with plenty of room for improvement and maybe, in time, those things will come.

Then again, maybe they will not.

If nothing else, with his up-and-coming defense, Gordon is ensuring he will be a valuable NBA player for years to come. That is one of the most important steps in a young player’s career. And he is taking it with gusto.

Whether he will get to spend significant time on a roster that showcases what his offensive game already is a different conversation. Whether his offense will ever fit the small forward position is also a different conversation.

The bottom line is regardless of the circumstances surrounding him, he is carving out a niche for himself. There is no telling what he could do playing alongside better defensive personnel.

It is still hard to say what exactly his ceiling is, but his floor has never been higher.

As we head down the stretch of his third season, Gordon is showing us he is well on his way.

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