Through the first month of the college hoops season, 2014 NBA draft prospect Aaron Gordon has been impressive, but not spectacular enough to crack most top-five projections.
The last thing you should do, however, is dismiss the Arizona Wildcats freshman forward from the elite group of potential draftees. He owns the tools and upside to be one of the first names called in June.
His 11.9 points per game don't dominate the box score, and his last couple games have featured underwhelming production and woeful free-throw shooting. It might be tempting for the fans and media to sleep on Gordon as a premier prospect, but that's an unwise approach at this juncture.
As a key player on the top-ranked team in the country, the 6'9" Wildcat has already displayed a slew of desirable traits for pro scouts. With the majority of the season ahead of him, he could have a truly special year and ride the momentum to the NBA.
What makes him so special, and why exactly shouldn't we underestimate his draft value?
Physical Tools More Than Just Leaping
When you watch Gordon play, it's impossible to ignore how far he gets off the ground. The guy can flat-out bounce. It's a talent that has helped him shine as a youngster, and it will certainly help him as a pro.
However, his physical gifts go beyond leaping ability.
Gordon's body control in the open floor and in traffic are outstanding, and that kind of agility at 6'9" is something you can't teach. He can avoid defenders in midair, grab difficult rebounds and adjust to contact on his way to the basket. This body control also helps him on defense, where he can contest shots and block without fouling.
Those worried about him being a failed 'tweener or an undersized power forward are forgetting about his 8'10.5" standing reach, which is taller than several NBA power forwards' reaches.
When you factor in all his physical characteristics—leaping, length, maneuverability and a strong frame that will only get stronger—you get an extraordinarily rare prospect. Watch his agility and mid-drive adjustment as he slashes to the rim here:
Versatile Impact Lies Far Beyond Scoring
Gordon has scoring potential—and plenty of it.
Along with his athletic prowess, he owns a developing skill set, including ball-handling from the wing and perimeter shooting. Right now, his shot needs a dose of polish and consistency, as he's 7-of-22 in his last two games and 1-of-6 from the free-throw line.
But if the hoops world bases his draft status on scoring results and shooting percentages, we're not doing ourselves or Gordon any favors. His energy level and nose for the ball earn rebounds (8.5 per game) and gives Arizona extra possessions, and he rejects a fair amount of shots.
His influence also goes beyond measurable stats like rebounds and blocks. Potent defensive efforts, like the one against Jabari Parker and Duke, don't go unnoticed by NBA scouts.
Gordon's execution on the defensive end is a big reason why he's far more valuable than a high-flying dunker. He can assert himself on both ends of the court and give his team a great chance to win.
Bleacher Report NBA Draft Lead Writer Jonathan Wasserman also noticed the dirty work, as Gordon moves well without the ball and is always working to be in the right spot at the right time: "He's already established just how explosive of an athlete he can be. Now he's showcasing the intangibles—the effort plays, the heads-up passes, the backdoor cuts, etc. ... [S]couts love his team-first approach and long-term upside."
Let's look at an example of him doing the little things to give his team high-percentage opportunities.
Watch his instincts and awareness when his teammate T.J. McConnell creates a turnover. Gordon sprints to the perfect angle and quickly turns a two-on-two into a three-on-two, and he deftly relays the ball to Nick Johnson for a layup:
Long-Term Upside and Outlook
If you've followed draft coverage in recent years, terms like "upside" and "high ceiling" are used quite often. Probably too much.
Gordon truly deserves those labels, though, because he shows tremendous promise in all major facets of the game. Even in the areas he struggles, like post-up moves and shooting consistency, he shows a willingness and an ability to learn and grow. That's dangerous stuff when paired with his athleticism.
USA Today's Adi Joseph doesn't mince words when it comes to Gordon's value: "Arizona's Aaron Gordon might be more athletic than (Andrew) Wiggins and have more upside than (Jabari) Parker."
In addition to his substantial athletic dominance and rebounding efforts, we've seen glimpses of him handling the ball coast-to-coast and burying triples well beyond the college arc.
He's regularly compared to players like Blake Griffin and Kawhi Leonard, and he's far ahead of where they were when they were 18 years old. If Gordon keeps working, he could be one of the best all-around forwards in the league by his early 20s.
With length, strength and leaping skills, he will be able to hold his own as a 4. Then, as he expands his game, he'll give his NBA coach the flexibility to use him as a small forward.
As Arizona's season unfolds, keep an eye on Gordon's multifaceted involvement. If the Wildcats make a deep run in March, his huge NBA potential and usefulness will become even more apparent.
Despite the loaded group of studs leading the draft board, Gordon should be considered a threat to crash the top-five party in June.
His talent, potential and approach to the game make him anything but a sleeper.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:
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