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NBA Draft Expert's Notebook: Is Aaron Gordon Biggest Risk-Reward Pick in 2014?

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NBA Draft Expert's Notebook: Is Aaron Gordon Biggest Risk-Reward Pick in 2014?
USA Today

Aaron Gordon entered his freshman year at Arizona as one of the more high-profile kids in his class. And though he's seemingly slipped out of that top tier of can't-miss prospects early on, it hasn't changed his image as a prize in the upcoming draft. 

Gordon is one of those video-game athletes capable of making plays that nobody else can, a quality that ultimately drives his perceived upside as a potential future All-Star. 

Through roughly 10 weeks of college basketball, Gordon has played a significant role for the No. 1 team in the country. He's been consistent and efficient despite not producing in volume.

But there's something about Gordon's label and the package he's offering—something that's kept me from getting comfortable buying into his NBA outlook.

I'm hesitant about Gordon for the same reasons I was hesitant about Anthony Bennett prior to last June's draft, when I referred to him as "the ultimate high-risk, high-reward option."

Like Bennett, Gordon is a combo forward, which really just means he lacks a natural position. At 6'9'', roughly 225 pounds, Gordon doesn't have your traditional small-forward body or game. And he's not the interior power player you typically get with NBA 4s. 

Though it's hard not to like what we're seeing from him now, it's the transition to the pros I'm worried about. 

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Maybe it's just one of those phases, but not many recent first-round combo forwards have been successful—or at least they haven't made a positive impression early on. 

Whether it was Bennett, who went No. 1, or Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams, combo forwards who went No. 2 in their respective drafts, or even Thomas Robinson, a No. 5 pick—this type of player has struggled to break through the barrier. 

Gordon has played his fair share of minutes at the 3 for Arizona alongside center Kaleb Tarczewski and power forward Brandon Ashley. And as a small forward, we've seen mixed results. 

He isn't exactly a one-on-one threat working from the perimeter, where small forwards mostly operate at the NBA level. Gordon struggles to consistently create his own shot away from the rim. 

Check out how uncomfortable he seems working off the dribble:


via CBS

He doesn't quite have that built-in navigation—Gordon tends to put it on the deck without a sense of where he's going or what he's going to do with it:

It looks like we can chalk up "handling the ball in traffic" as a weakness. He has a lot to fine-tune with regard to his half-court repertoire, specifically generating offense when he's not set up for a bucket. 

Think about how skilled the NBA's small forwards are. Almost all of them can create their own shots on the perimeter or in the mid-range, and the ones who can't are likely the ones who play minimal roles in their offenses. 

Gordon's jumper could also use a lot of work (7-of-23 from downtown, 45.9 percent from the line). If he's going to make it as a 3, he'll need to be able to spread the floor as a spot-up shooting threat. And considering his struggles scoring off the dribble, a stand-still jumper would give him an important extra weapon to fire at defenses. 

At this point, I'm just not sure Gordon's strengths are designed to seamlessly transition to the NBA wing unless some adjustments and improvements are made. 

How about Gordon at power forward? As of January, 2014, he doesn't quite have the skill set or even the body to match up with NBA 4s (although he does have a frame that should be able to add muscle).

We haven't seen many signs of a post game early on, either, and he hasn't presented himself as a realistic option to go to.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As a 4, the best thing he's got going for him right now is that devastating combination of size, athleticism and instincts around the hoop. There's no doubting his ability to finish at tough angles below the rim and easy ones high above it. 

But he has to add generating his own offense in the post to his skill set. His back-to-the-basket game appears limited. Jump hooks, fadeaways, power moves—they're just not currently in the arsenal, or at least he hasn't been given much of a chance to show them off.

He's doing most of his damage working off backdoor cuts, slashing off the ball, tipping in misses and finishing lobs or dump-offs.


via ESPN

Arizona rarely features him—according to KenPom.com's advances stats (subscription required), Gordon's usage rate is only 22.6 percent, a lot lower than, say, Kentucky power forward Julius Randle, who's used 29.3 percent of the time in his offense.

However, despite the questions or red flags, there is some room optimism. 

Gordon has been excellent defensively, ranking No. 4 in the Pac-12 in defensive wins shared (1.6), which estimates the number of wins a player contributes to his team due to defense. With quick feet and long arms, defense might actually carry over as a strength for Gordon, something few college combo forwards get to wear on their NBA hats. 

He's also shown off some of the intangibles he brings to the table. Gordon is a willing and heads-up passer, and he rarely ever takes a bad shot. And though his 7.8-rebound average won't knock your socks off, he's bringing in 2.6 offensive boards a game. Gordon has a quick second jump, along with a live motor and a good nose for the ball. 

He has a high basketball IQ, which could help lower some of the hurdles he might face when making the transition. Plus, the ability jump out of the gym should translate to easy buckets most guys can't typically get.


via APlayersProgram

As a combo forward, Gordon offers risk, but only relative to where you take him. He's a guy I'd feel great about at No. 17 but somewhat hesitant about at No. 7, especially with the depth of this draft at the top. 

A lot has to go right for Gordon to pay off as a top-10 pick, a range many have him currently slotted in. And in that range, wouldn't you feel safer choosing a prospect with similar upside whose identity is already established?

It really depends on how dangerously you like to live, or whether you put any stock into my "fear the combo forward theory."  

Of course, if it one day clicks for Gordon, and he's able to pair that explosive athletic ability with a more refined, concentrated skill set, we could be talking about a mismatch or effective two-way, versatile forward. 

But given the pros and cons attached to what a combo forward represents, the right approach to take might be letting Gordon fall into your lap as opposed to reaching up into someone else's. 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

 

Scout's Take

"I think Aaron Gordon would greatly benefit from another year," one scout told me. "He has to improve to play the 3 and small-ball 4 at the next level. I think as a true 4 in the NBA, he will be a fringe starter at best."

Therein lies the problem. There are questions for Gordon at both positions. And when I'm drafting with a valuable lottery pick in a loaded NBA draft, I want to know exactly what I'm getting. 

Whether you think Gordon is a 3, 4 or a combo, the fact is that there's debate. And if I were a GM, it's that uncertainty that would keep me from reaching on him early. 

2014 NBA Draft Big Board
Rank Prospect School Year
1 Joel Embiid Kansas Freshman
2 Jabari Parker Duke Freshman
3 Andrew Wiggins Kansas Freshman
4 Dante Exum Australia 1995
5 Marcus Smart Oklahoma State Sophomore
6 Noah Vonleh Indiana Freshman
7 Julius Randle Kentucky Freshman
8 Zach LaVine UCLA Freshman
9 Rodney Hood Duke Sophomore
10 Doug McDermott Creighton Senior
11 Gary Harris Michigan State Sophomore
12 James Young Kentucky Freshman
13 Dario Saric Croatia 1994
14 Aaron Gordon Arizona Freshman
15 Glenn Robinson III Michigan Sophomore
16 Tyler Ennis Syracuse Freshman
17 P.J. Hairston Texas Legends Junior
18 Jerami Grant Syracuse Sophomore
19 Adreian Payne Michigan State Senior
20 Willie Cauley-Stein Kentucky Sophomore
21 Nik Stauskas Michigan Sophomore
22 Wayne Selden Kansas Freshman
23 Vasilije Micic Serbia 1994
24 T.J. Warren North Carolina State Sophomore
25 Sam Dekker Wisconsin Sophomore
26 Montrezl Harrell Louisville Sophomore
27 Jordan Clarkson Missouri Junior
28 Kyle Anderson UCLA Sophomore
29 C.J. Wilcox Washington Senior
30 Semaj Christon Xavier Sophomore

Bleacher Report

 

Heatin' Up

Gary Harris, Michigan State, 6'4'', SG, Sophomore

Harris has officially caught fire. He went for 23 points and four assists in a win at Illinois, and 24 points and five steals in a win against Indiana. He combined to shoot 15-of-22 during the two-game stretch, and he appears to have regained his form as a lottery prospect following a rough month shooting the ball.

He's one of the more sure things in the field based on his offensive discipline as a slasher and shooter, along with his ability to impact a game on the defensive end. Harris' upside might be limited, but he has starting 2-guard potential as a rock in someone's lineup.  

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

 

Nik Stauskas, Michigan, 6'6'', SG/SF, Sophomore

Put Stauskas on the list of players who've erupted out of nowhere. He's gone from three-point specialist to go-to scorer in a year. He's averaging just over 23 points a game over his last three, with at least four assists in each. 

And two of those wins came against No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 10 Iowa. 

Not only did Stauskas return with that lethal three-ball, which now sits at a scorching 44 percent, but he's improved his off-the-dribble game dramatically. Stauskas has been going to work with his step-back and pull-up jumpers by separating into clean, balanced looks. He's also getting to the rack (averaging 6.5 free-throw attempts a game) and making plays for teammates as a passer off the bounce. 

Stauskas entered the year as a likely future second-round flier, and now he looks like a potential top-20 pick in June.

 

Coolin' Off

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky, 7'0'', C, Sophomore

He's gone missing. Cauley-Stein was even benched during Kentucky's last game for freshman Dakari Johnson, and he's now totaled just three points, 10 boards and two blocks over his last three games. 

“Once they made contact, he didn’t fight back,” Kentucky assistant coach John Robic said following his zero-point effort against Tennessee (via Larry Vaught of The Advocate Messenger). “He had a big height advantage. He has to get down low and be physical and make the first blow and then use his size to rebound it above the rim.”

The whole thing is bizarre considering how active he'd been prior to the slump. Consistency, as well as a limited offensive game, kept Cauley-Stein's stock in check as a freshman. Based on his recent play, some scouts might view this as a troubling pattern or trend. 

James Crisp/Associated Press

 

Aaron Craft, Ohio State, PG, 6'2'', Senior

You have to admire the intangibles—his leadership, effort and energy. But Craft's floor game hasn't been very good lately. Before beating Illinois, Ohio State went on a four-game losing streak, with Craft totaling 19 turnovers and 19 assists during the stretch. 

Though extremely likable, I'm not sure intangibles alone or perimeter defense will be enough to get an NBA team to bite. 

He's seen his three-point percentage fall with each year—it's now below 30 percent. Craft just doesn't bring enough to the offensive table. Seven-footers could get away with that, but not point guards. 

 

Update Abroad

Bogdan Bogdanovic, Partizan, 6'6'', SG/SF

The crafty Serbian wing went absolutely nuts recently in a one-point win over CSKA Moscow, scoring a season-high 27 points. 

He's now averaging 15.7 points on 44 percent shooting from three in 15 Euroleague games, and 14.9 points on 35.1 percent shooting from three in 16 Adriatic League games. 

With good size for a 2-guard or wing, Bogdanovic isn't overly athletic but knows how to get to his spots on the floor. He's sneaky off the bounce, where he can pull-up in the mid-range or use the hesitation dribble to get to the rim.

His monster year abroad has made him a prospect to keep an eye on, with the 2014 first round not completely out of the question. Below are highlights from his 27-point outburst:

 

Mouhammadou Jaiteh, Nanterre, 6'11'', C 

This name might ring a bell if you follow the NBA draft intently, as Jaiteh was on the verge of declaring last year before deciding to withdraw last-second. 

He showed his face and gladiator-like body at the 2013 Nike Hoops Summit, and though his skill set appeared limited, he offers massive size and length to go with some nice touch around the rim. 

Jaiteh is getting 15.8 minutes a game in France, and he's now scored at least 12 points in three of his last six games. 

He's the definition of a project, but he'll be on second-round radars based on his interior presence. 

 

Fourth-Quarter Thoughts 

  • Former North Carolina guard P.J. Hairston went off for 22 points and six steals in his D-League debut with the Texas Legends. He shot 4-of-9 from downtown and appeared to be in good condition. If he's able to prove to teams there's no character issues to fear, he'll get himself top-20 looks this June. There's just too much talent here, and as a 6'6'' bully at both ends of the floor, he can add a unique dimension of physicality to a backcourt. 
  • Nik Stauskas has been balling lately, to the point where he's taking over games against the top teams in the country. There's just no way there are 30 better prospects than him. I've got Stauskas locked and loaded as a first-round pick this June. 
  • It's amazing how few big men are projected in this year's field. Outside of Kansas' Joel Embiid, you've got Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein, who's been awfully disappointing as of late—and that's it in terms of first-round difference-makers. Arizona State's Jordan Bachynski, Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski and Green Bay's Alec Brown could each draw some attention, but none of them stands out as a can't-miss guy.
  • I got a real good look at Kansas' top recruit Cliff Alexander this past week, who will be joining the Jayhawks next season as the likely replacement for Joel Embiid. And based on what I've seen so far, he's going to be in contention for the first pick of the 2015 NBA draft. At 6'9'', 240 pounds, he bares a striking resemblance to a young Amar'e Stoudemire, only he projects as more of a factor on the glass and defensive end. He also came off as engaging and self-aware in his postgame interview on ESPN. For those who like to think ahead, make sure to keep an eye out for Alexander.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and Eurobasket.com  

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