What Aaron Gordon Must Do to Contend for 2014-15 NBA Rookie of the Year

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What Aaron Gordon Must Do to Contend for 2014-15 NBA Rookie of the Year
Fernando Medina/Getty Images


Orlando Magic rookie forward Aaron Gordon won't waltz into the NBA and dominate, but he's blessed with the physical tools and court awareness to make an impact on both ends of the court.

The soon-to-be-19-year-old needs polishing in several areas, and he's not the overwhelming favorite to win Rookie of the Year. Nevertheless, he can join the fray in contention if he maximizes his strong suits and addresses (or minimizes) his deficiencies.

After a strong freshman campaign at Arizona, the 6'9" leaper landed No. 4 overall on a franchise still toiling in its rebuilding phase. Gordon might not be on top of the Magic depth chart at power forward, but he'll get frequent opportunities to play.

It won't be a cinch for the one-and-done youngster to join the Rookie of the Year race. He needs to be a practical weapon on offense and a standout defender in order to make real noise.

What must he do in each phase of the game in order to contend?

Fernando Medina/Getty Images

 

Maximizing Offensive Strengths

Off-Ball Cuts and O-Boards

Gordon needs to do his best Kenneth Faried impression from day one.

Many have compared the rookie to the "Manimal," and Gordon's exploits at Arizona certainly reflected many of Faried's traits: running and jumping over everyone in transition, cutting to the open spots along the baseline and relentlessly crashing the offensive glass.

Gordon didn't handle the ball a ton last year, yet he remained active and influential on almost every possession because he worked to find the soft spots in the defense. He needs to do the same with Orlando. He has to cut to the open space and make opponents pay if they're too focused on Victor Oladipo or Elfrid Payton.

And when Oladipo and Payton slash to the basket, he needs to follow up every time and clean any misses. At Arizona he led the Pac-12 with 102 offensive boards (3.4 per 40 minutes), but rebounding won't be a piece of cake in the NBA. He needs to play with a strong lower-body base in order to box out and give himself a chance to use his leaping ability.

Gordon's goal should be five offensive rebounds per 40 minutes in 2014-15 (Faried averaged 5.4 in his rookie year).

 

Pick-and-Roll Athleticism

In half-court scenarios, Gordon won't be able to create off the bounce too frequently or thrive in the post. He'll need to rely on collaborating with his teammates, much like his widespread NBA comparison: Shawn Marion. One area where the rookie can use his size, mobility and explosive athleticism is the pick-and-roll.

Gordon has great instincts and spacial perception, so he can capitalize on opportunities to set screens and then dive to the hoop. Ball-handlers like Payton and Oladipo have the task of turning the corner and feeding him the rock, which should often come in the form of a lob.

Once the ball is in the air, Gordon can use his springs and hand-eye coordination to finish the play (enjoy the Payton-Gordon connection at the 24-second mark).

When scouting Gordon leading up to the draft, Tyler R. Tynes of the Philadelphia Daily News noted that Gordon is an athletic specimen who could "establish himself as a great pick-and-roll option in the NBA."

 

Display His Passing Skills

Gordon can earn extra minutes in coach Jacque Vaughn's system by working seamlessly with his teammates. Compared to most young forward prospects, he's got great vision and passing ability. He averaged 2.5 assists per 40 minutes at Arizona, and he's the type of player who keeps the ball moving and helps his squad create good habits.

In the early going, he needs to study his Orlando comrades and identify where they like the ball—then distribute accordingly.

 

Addressing Offensive Weaknesses

Find Shooting Rhythm

The worst-kept secret about Gordon is his poor jump shooting. He shot 29.3 percent on all jumpers in 2013-14, according to DraftExpress.com. His form has improved in recent months, but it's still a bit rigid in game situations. Poor mid-range shooting contributed to his unsightly 35 percent during summer league, including going 0-of-10 from three-point range.

Fernando Medina/Getty Images

If he wants to play like a top-tier rookie, he needs to become more fluid and hit at least a couple outside shots per game. He must know his limitations and be selective on contested shots, but pull the trigger enough to help his team out.

Fluidity is also the key when it comes to free throws. He hit less than 50 percent from the stripe in both college and summer league due to his stiff delivery. If he can iron that out and shoot better than 60 percent in 2014-15, it will keep his offensive production afloat.

 

Establish Two Dependable Post Plays

It would be easy to suggest Gordon master one go-to move and stick with it, but that becomes old and predictable in the NBA. He needs a little more than that.

We're not going to ask him to magically (no pun intended) deliver a vast array of pivot moves and advanced footwork on the block. However, he needs to employ more than one type of post play in order to take advantage of intermittent mismatches and remain somewhat unpredictable.

Fernando Medina/Getty Images

During a summer league postgame chat with reporters, he admitted that he needs to be able to attack smaller opponents in the paint rather than opt for jumpers. If foes put a wing on him, he's got to cash in.

"Sometimes I settle when there's a shorter or smaller defender on me, I settle for a jumper," he regretted.

He didn't display much low-post talent at Arizona, but there are some effective moves he could quickly apply in the NBA. Perhaps a back-to-the-basket baby hook, a drop step or a six-foot turnaround.

 

Maximizing Defensive Strengths

Showcase Versatility

This depends largely on the Magic's level of trust in Gordon. Will they really take advantage of his skill set and use him against a variety of opponents?

Gordon has enough size and length to defend most power forwards, but he also has exceptional lateral quickness. His defensive footwork and agility are sharp enough to check wing players, and in many cases, playmaking guards.

Oladipo and Payton will do a fine job against challenging backcourts, so Gordon will focus on matching up against 3s and 4s. His goal should be to defend so well early on that he forces Orlando's coaches to put him on the opponents' best player.

 

Exercise Discipline, Limit the Fouls

In college, Gordon committed just 2.4 fouls per game (3.0 per 40 minutes) while regularly competing against the most talented opposing scorer.

It's going to be a challenge for him to maintain that rate in the NBA, where the officiating often caters to slashers and aggressive low-post scorers. Gordon will have to supply his finest footwork and pick his spots to aggressively contest shots or attempt steals.

The previous two categories are opportunities for him to stand out above all other rookies. While it won't single-handedly catapult him toward ROY honors, it will enhance his stock.

 

Upgrading the Defensive Weaknesses

Strength in the Post

Considering his age and collegiate experience, Gordon doesn't really have any alarming shortcomings defensively.

The only noticeable concern in certain power forward matchups is weight and strength, and he seems to be working on that already. Gordon got up to 225 pounds at summer league, and his frame is conducive to putting on more upper- and lower-body muscle in the near future.

He had some trouble against sturdier forwards last year. For example, Duke's Jabari Parker discovered success against Gordon primarily when he bruised his way into the lane:

"Gordon did an excellent job limiting Parker overall, but Parker was able to use his strength to get in the paint and draw fouls," noted Draft Express video scout Mike Schmitz.

If Gordon can play at 230 throughout 2014-15, he'll hold his own against most 4's. The additional muscle will also help him on the defensive glass, an area where he could use improvement. But when he encounters 250- to 260-pound behemoths, things get dicey.

Fernando Medina/Getty Images

 

Rookie Outlook and Overall Chances for ROY

The only way Gordon can become a true contender for Rookie of the Year is if he gets upwards of 25 minutes of playing time. Those minutes won't be handed to him without a fight, as he's competing with several other young forwards on the roster.

Can Aaron Gordon contend for ROY?

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But if he plays to his strengths and upgrades his deficiencies, he could see around 25 minutes in Orlando's rotation. And in that time frame, he could score double-digit points, which would put him in the ROY conversation. It won't be enough to win it, though.

Gordon's optimistic, yet achievable per-game stat line could look something like this: 25.4 minutes, 11.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 49 percent on field goals.

Those numbers would make him a standout rookie, perhaps in the group of ROY hopefuls. His chances of actually winning the award, even with better statistics than those, are extremely slim.

Without an extensive one-on-one scoring repertoire, it will be a tall task for Gordon to shine early in his career. But like Marion and Faried, he's a special version of "unskilled" prospect; he can still impact the game in so many ways

 

Dan O'Brien covers the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report.

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