As the elite 2014 NBA draft candidates make their audition on the college court, Arizona Wildcats freshman Aaron Gordon holds a critical advantage over his fellow lottery prospects.
All the marquee names are impressive multidimensional players, but none possesses Gordon's level of defensive versatility and natural prowess as a stopper.
We've spent much of the season dissecting the offensive exploits of Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, or praising the potential of Joel Embiid and Dante Exum. And sure, Marcus Smart can play excellent backcourt defense. But no one can guard as many positions as effectively as Gordon.
In an era when scoring weapons abound and defense without fouling is at a premium, NBA general managers near the top of the draft board will highly consider the Arizona standout.
He is on a different plane compared to the other freshman superstars, and that won't go unnoticed by draft decision-makers.
For an 18-year-old, he displays exceptional technique and instincts, and his mobility and 6'11.5" wingspan will allow him to legitimately guard positions 1 through 4 as a pro.
Gordon's blend of talent and savvy are a big reason Arizona boasts the fourth-best defensive rating (86.8) out of 351 Division I teams. In 30.3 minutes per game, he has slowed down the opponents' best playmakers while registering just 1.7 fouls. That's a testament to his positional discipline and maturity.
Focus and fundamentals are the hallmarks of his young career, as his calculated footwork and sharp awareness allow him to steer his foes into tough angles. A low, wide base is the first step to his possession-by-possession effectiveness.
Watch Gordon demonstrate his technique at a clinic. When his man catches the ball, he gets into a squat, mirroring the ball with one hand while keeping his eyes on the opponent's torso. Gordon then shows us the "alligator" slide step that allows him to stay in front of slashers.
Seeing him break down the key principles in the video reveals his strong grasp on defense and how much he values it.
On numerous occasions this season, Gordon has been tasked with guarding the opposing team's primary playmaker or initiator. The Wildcats have benefited immensely from having a 6'9" forward patrol the perimeter as well as the post; his on-ball defense affects the entire team offensively.
Most of the time, he meets his man beyond the three-point line, preventing him from comfortably driving or playing quarterback. When his man attacks, he guides him with one hand while keeping the other hand outstretched above or to the side, in order to deter passes or quick pull-up shots.
By discouraging passes or jumpers, Gordon forces the carrier to either reset the offense or to try to finish a low-percentage drive.
Gordon was lauded for his stellar defense on Parker during Arizona's Nov. 29 triumph over Duke, but he actually spent a sizable portion of that game guarding Rodney Hood and Rasheed Sulaimon. Let's take a look at a key sequence against Sulaimon: Gordon gets hung up on a screen, recovers and then finishes the play with a game-changing block.
First, Gordon is caught on the high screen, and Sulaimon has room to drive to the hoop:
Gordon quickly makes up ground and gets into decent position:
He harasses Sulaimon into an off-balance shot, resulting in a clean block:
Those types of plays showcase his lateral quickness, positional anticipation and impeccable timing. Gordon's physical tools give him the luxury of corralling quicker players on the perimeter as well as protecting the rim against forwards.
His off-ball movement and awareness are just as important and impressive as his on-ball endeavors. He always has his head on a swivel and knows where the ball is, and depending on the situation, he effectively denies his man any passes. Whether it's reading the passing lanes or fronting the post, he does a superb job.
Another underrated aspect of Gordon's defense is his ability to avoid unnecessary fouls. He's encountered foul trouble only a couple of times this season, and he rarely commits sloppy errors.
One of his keys to not fouling too often? Knowing when he's beat.
Gordon does everything in his power to stay in front of his man, but when he does get beat, he refrains from reaching in or hacking from behind. He understands the term "lose the battle, win the war."
Gordon's NBA Value
Why should NBA GMs picking in the top 10 (or top five, for that matter) consider him over other candidates?
Because defensive versatility translates to winning.
The 2013 NBA playoffs are a prime example of multidimensional stoppers propelling their teams. Each of the semifinalist squads (Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies) enjoyed a deep postseason run thanks to the help of forwards who could cover multiple positions.
Players like LeBron James, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Allen don't grow on trees.
Gordon has a really good chance to reach their neighborhood of defensive ability. He'll battle in the post with NBA power forwards, stifle swingmen with his length and hound guards with his quickness.
He has widely drawn Blake Griffin comparisons for his explosiveness and agility, but from a defensive standpoint, he translates to Leonard or Shawn Marion. Both were top-15 picks, but each became one of the best half-dozen players from his respective draft class.
Other top forward prospects have high ceilings on defense, but none is a sure thing like Gordon. He will definitely achieve his upside on that end of the floor.
If Gordon can come close to his offensive potential while carrying out his guaranteed defensive talent, he's worth top-five consideration. GMs looking for the next big-impact defender and all-purpose star will find it difficult to pass on Arizona's blossoming stopper.
He may not land No. 1, but his name should be called shortly after the draft commences.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA draft for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:
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