TUCSON, Ariz. — Just two months into his college career, Aaron Gordon is averaging 12.4 points and a team-high eight rebounds for the No. 1-ranked program in America.
And there’s a chance we haven’t seen anything yet.
Gordon, Arizona’s standout freshman forward, told Bleacher Report last week that he’s been hesitant to fully unleash himself on the court.
“I feel like I’m holding myself back,” Gordon said. “Sometimes, I feel like the only thing stopping me is myself.”
Gordon was among the headliners of a 2014 recruiting class that some experts tabbed as one of the best in college basketball history. Since the season began in November, though, most of the national spotlight has focused on three of Gordon’s classmates: Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kentucky’s Julius Randle.
One factor is that the majority of Arizona’s games occur while much of the country is preparing to go to bed. But the real reason is likely because, both on and off the court, Gordon hasn’t carried himself like an alpha dog or a star.
He hasn’t had to.
Gordon—who averages just 9.7 field goal attempts per game heading into tonight’s Pac-12 showdown at UCLA—may be Arizona’s best player, but in the big picture he’s merely a piece of a 15-0 team that prides itself on chemistry and selflessness. In some ways, Gordon dotes on his modest scoring numbers.
“Winning,” he said, “is the ultimate stat.”
Not all one-and-done-caliber players arrive on college campuses with that type of mentality. Some, because of their talent, have been coddled and catered to by summer league coaches and hangers-on since they were in elementary school. Their main concern lies with how many shots they’re allowed to take or how they’ll be featured in an offense. Winning is secondary to individual numbers and getting to the NBA.
That’s hardly been the case with Gordon.
Wildcats coach Sean Miller said he couldn’t be more pleased with the attitude and work ethic of the 6’9” small forward, who is seen as a surefire top 10 pick in this summer’s NBA draft. Gordon just turned 18 in September, but Miller said he carries himself like a senior.
“He’s one of the greatest kids I’ve ever been around,” Miller said. “He’s a fantastic teammate, an incredibly hard worker. His disposition is the same every day. I think he’s his harshest critic.
“Sometimes I think he’s actually too hard on himself.”
Miller credits Gordon’s parents, Ed Gordon and Shelly Davis, for the maturity he’s shown thus far. Gordon’s brother, Drew, starred at New Mexico after transferring from UCLA. His sister, Elise, currently plays for Harvard. Gordon’s father had a brief stint in the NFL with the New England Patriots.
“Sometimes, with a player of this caliber, the family’s expectations are almost different than the coach’s expectations,” Miller said. “But his parents get it. They know how things work. There is no outside negativity. Aaron has no pressure coming from them.
“It’s all support.”
As well as he’s handled things thus far, Gordon said the transition from high school to college basketball hasn’t always been smooth. He said it took a while to get used to 6 a.m. workouts. Balancing classes, homework and tutoring sessions with basketball responsibilities (practice, film, weightlifting) has been a chore.
“Playing in college isn’t easy,” he said. “The fans and the spectators might think it’s easy. But it’s not. The demands are tough both on and off the court. Everything you do revolves around basketball.”
Gordon chuckled when asked if he was enjoying life as a “normal college kid.”
“A normal college kid?” he said. “I don’t know what that is. Wild parties and frats? That’s not what I’m going to do. That’s not who I am. It wouldn’t be good for me to go to a big party when I have to wake up early for practice.
“But as far as walking around campus and getting food and sleeping in the dorm ... that’s fine. That’s basically what I do.”
Well, that and socialize with his teammates.
College will likely be a one-year pit stop for Gordon on the way to the NBA, but he’s hardly taking the experience for granted. He said Arizona’s biggest strength is the bond shared by its players. He refers to teammates he’s known for less than a year as “brothers.”
In some ways that may be why Gordon hasn’t completely let loose on the court. He knows how much closer a team can be when everyone feels involved. A happy locker room, he said, leads to more checks in the victory column.
“It’s hard to find that balance of being a great teammate and a great scorer,” Gordon said. “There are times when I have the ball and I’m thinking, ‘I can get by my man. I can get in the lane. I can make something happen.’
“Sometimes I probably should do it. It would benefit our team. But there also may be an open man on the wing I can swing it to for a basket that would give him confidence. In the long run, that can benefit our team more.”
“I’ve always been a pass-first player,” he said, “I know how important it is to be a good teammate. I want to be a guy that people want to play with.”
That’s not to say that Gordon is never assertive on the court. He scored 18 points on 8-for-11 shooting in Saturday’s win over Washington and had 19 points on 10 shots against Texas Tech.
Other times Gordon’s stats haven’t been as gaudy. He hoisted just six shots in a 10-point effort against Duke and scored a season-low five points in last week’s win over Washington State.
Gordon has eclipsed the 20-point barrier just once (against Southern) all season and has never attempted more than 12 shots.
“There’s no question that sometimes he probably defers,” Miller said. “As the year moves on, he’ll improve and find a happy medium with that.
“We want him to be aggressive. The more aggressive he is, the more aggressive our team is. Right now he’s picking his spots.”
If there were ever a game for Gordon to increase his production offensively, tonight’s game at Pauley Pavilion might be it. UCLA (along with Oregon and Colorado) is viewed as one of the top challengers to Arizona for the Pac-12 title, and this will mark the only time during the regular season that the two schools will play.
The Bruins rank fifth in the country with 87.1 points per contest. Steve Alford’s team probably won’t score as much on a defensive-minded Wildcats squad that allows a Pac-12-best 54.9 points a game.
Still, Arizona may need a few more buckets than normal from Gordon, who insists his mindset is always the same.
“When I’m out there, all I’m thinking about is rebounding and winning,” he said.
Even if the victories continue to come in bunches, there’s a chance Gordon may not receive the notoriety he deserves until March, when the Wildcats will be on a more national stage in the NCAA tournament.
Maybe then, Gordon will get to square off against Kansas’ Wiggins or Joel Embiid, Kentucky’s Randle or James Young or any of the other freshmen who have received more buzz. Gordon already one-upped Parker when the Wildcats defeated Duke last month.
Gordon shrugged when asked if it bothered him that he was being overlooked nationally.
“I can’t say it doesn’t,” he said. “I know all of those guys. I’ve been compared to them my whole life. They’re all great guys.”
Gordon stopped and smiled.
“But I hope we play them,” he said. “That’s all I’ll say. It would be a great matchup. And I mean that from a team aspect—not an individual one.”
Of course not.
That just isn’t how Gordon thinks.
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow on Twitter @JasonKingBR.