As the 2013-14 college hoops season unfolded, it quickly became clear that Arizona's Aaron Gordon wasn't in the same class as fellow 2014 NBA draft prospects Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. And because he's not as gifted offensively, his draft stock slipped into the mid-to-late first round on many mocks.
While he won't challenge for the No. 1 overall spot, Gordon is using the platform of March to show why he should be in the top 10, and why he'll be one of the most successful prospects of this draft.
In order to appreciate Gordon's NBA value, you have to look beyond his sheer athleticism, mediocre scoring numbers and woeful free-throw shooting percentage.
The reason he should be a mid-to-high lottery selection is the same reason he's leading the Wildcats on an Elite Eight run: versatility.
Let's be clear: Gordon is a tremendous defender, and defense may be his greatest single asset in the NBA, but he is much more than a defensive specialist.
Ball-handling and Passing
For someone who plays power forward in college and projects to be a combo forward at the next level, Gordon is an impressive passer.
Throughout Arizona's postseason, Gordon has demonstrated this talent for distributing the ball, including eight assists in the Pac-12 title game against UCLA and six against Gonzaga in the NCAA tourney.
He's not an incredibly advanced ball-handler, but he can dribble to his right or left and quickly snap passes to the open man. Gordon operates as a pick-and-roll quarterback or drives and kicks to shooters.
Unlike most forwards, he does a good job of patiently waiting for the right window to pass, and on drives he uses his length to wrap the ball around defenders.
In the open floor, he's even more dangerous as a passer, as he knows how to utilize the weapons around him. Oftentimes he draws a lot of attention because he's an athletic threat in transition, so he makes the defense pay by dropping well-timed dimes to his teammates.
Moving Without the Ball
We can't talk about Gordon's instincts and feel for the game without mentioning his movement without the ball.
We've seen him break free for some big-time alley-oops this March, but that's not the only off-ball movement that enhances Arizona's attack.
He also knows when to quickly pop out to the wing to take advantage of two-man game opportunities or mismatches. In the middle of the floor, Gordon has a keen sense of when to flash hard to the mid-post and do some damage.
Even in transition, his work without the ball is much sharper than most youngsters. He exhibits terrific timing when things are still developing, and then shoots the gap, ready to catch and make a play.
Rebounding: Awareness and Timing
Gordon has thrived on the boards this season, averaging 9.9 rebounds per 40 minutes. He's particularly effective on the offensive glass, and he's second in the Pac-12 in offensive boards with 96.
When you combine his terrific timing with an ability to get off the floor quickly, it's no wonder he routinely out-rebounds similar-sized opponents.
Gordon not only has an acute awareness of where he is in relation to the ball, but he knows where everybody else is too. It gives him an edge even when he's being boxed out, as he knows when to tap it to himself, when to tip it back toward the rim or catch and gather for another leap.
If he has room to use his otherworldly explosiveness and rise above the crowd, all bets are off. But even when he's not in prime position to make a huge play, he makes the right adjustments and does everything in his power to grab the board and put it back toward the rim.
If you've watched Gordon at all this season, you don't need to be convinced of his defensive talent.
Both as an on-ball stopper and weak-side helper, he shows the fundamentals and the talent of a veteran. Gordon uses the "alligator step" and ample lateral quickness to slide with opponents, while simultaneously tracing the ball with one hand and keeping his eyes glued on their midsection.
Most of the time, he does such a good job of cutting off attackers that they don't even try a decent shooting attempt. When they're foolish enough to actually shoot against him, he makes them pay.
Watch him stymie Weber State with exemplary positioning and great reflexes for the blocked shot:
When Gordon is playing defense on the help side, he always remains aware of what's happening on the strong side, and he anticipates the need for help.
Countless times over the course of a game, you'll find him darting to the middle to plug up a hole, or swooping in out of nowhere to make a block. He makes nearly as many plays as a help defender as he does on the ball.
NBA Draft Value and NBA Outlook
This glowing review of Gordon isn't meant to disguise his flaws. He's shooting 42 percent from the free-throw line, and while his outside jumper is promising, it's not even close to being NBA ready.
In addition, he's not a dynamic shot-creator or shot-maker in the mid-range game, as his ball-handling skills are comfortable only in the open floor or in two-dribble situations.
Despite this underwhelming offensive resume, NBA minds still like him in the lottery or even top 10 because of his versatility.
Some compare him to a former top 10 pick, one who turned out to be an All-Star and key member of an NBA championship squad.
With the unorthodox style, outstanding athleticism and nonstop utility-man contributions, it's a great comparison. Guys like Marion prove that you don't have to be a featured offensive weapon to make a gigantic impact on the game.
It's tough to tell what Gordon's production level will be like in the NBA, and whether he'll make an All-Star game or two. But pro scouts and general managers know this is the type of competitor and all-around contributor that can significantly improve your chances to win.
As he showcases his versatility and his Wildcats continue to win, it's getting tougher to dismiss him from the draft's upper echelon.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA draft for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR
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