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Aaron Gordon's Ascension Is Short-Circuiting in Orlando

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 21, 2016

AUBURN HILLS, MI - DECEMBER 4:  Aaron Gordon #00 of the Orlando Magic shoots a free throw during a game against the Detroit Pistons on December 4, 2016 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

MIAMI — It's 12 minutes to tipoff, and Aaron Gordon won't budge from the left corner.

The first long-range look for the third-year Orlando Magic forward clips the front iron, then the back and rattles out. His next four fall in succession, with only one requiring the rim's assistance.

"He's improved his perimeter shooting," Magic coach Frank Vogel told Bleacher Report, "and his feel on the perimeter for recognizing the spots and the role we've created for him."

As encouraging as all that sounds—and as much credit as Gordon deserves for a complete buy-in to moving from the post to the perimeter—this process isn't what it seems.

He is not a small forward; he just plays one for the Magic.  

Vogel acknowledged as much before the season.

"If Serge Ibaka wasn't here, Aaron Gordon would be my power forward," Vogel told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe in July. "But Serge is here."

So are centers Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo, who, along with Ibaka, all see more floor time than Gordon's nightly allotment of 26.1 minutes.

This jumbo collection is a puzzling look for any number of reasons—all two-man combos of Vucevic, Biyombo and Ibaka have bottom-half net efficiency ratings—but chief among the concerns is Gordon's stagnating development.

Two years removed from being 2014's No. 4 pick, he's already been forced into a position change. His size, skills and explosive athleticism all fit the mold of the modern small-ball big. But Orlando's ill-fitting roster has pushed its most prized prospect away from his natural position.

Hence why you'll see Gordon—as fans did before Orlando's 136-130 double-overtime win over the Miami Heat on Tuesday—racing through a crash course on playing NBA wing. Rather than capitalizing on the talents that got him to the league, he's trying to hone new ones for a foreign role.

His stat sheet paints a grim picture of the transformation.

While a few counting categories are up because of a personal best in playing time, his efficiency numbers are falling across the board. 

It's a disappointing downturn for a player who closed 2015-16 on a high.

While most will remember Gordon's sophomore season for his sizzling silver-medal effort in the Slam Dunk Contest, it quietly served as a potential springboard to a leap year. His player efficiency rating jumped from below average (11.4) to well above it (17.0). He tied for 62nd in win shares per 48 minutes (.139) among the 274 players to log at least 1,000 minutes.

But this year, he's back below mediocrity in PER (12.3). And he's only 170th in win shares per 48 minutes (career-worst .048) among 208 qualified players (minimum 500 minutes).

Granted, Gordon has a new coach and different teammates around him. But the position swap is by far the biggest difference. While he'd previously never spent more than 40 percent of his minutes at the 3, he's now getting 94 percent of them there.

"[Small forward is] a challenging position to play," Gordon said.

For all the talk of "position-less" basketball, there are still different dynamics on the floor among the five spots. Gordon carries more responsibilities now, whether it's generating additional offense off the dribble or cycling through a greater quantity of defensive reads.

"There's no trick to knowing multiple positions," Magic forward Jeff Green—who's spent more than 40 percent of his career minutes at both the 3 and 4 spots—said. "You've got to put in the work studying your craft, to know your spots on the floor and where you're going to be."

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 18: Aaron Gordon #00 of the Orlando Magic handles the ball during the game against the Toronto Raptors on December 18, 2016 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadi
Gary Bassing/Getty Images

Both Green and Gordon say playing the perimeter demands more adjustments at the defensive end.

To Gordon's credit, that's been the smoothest part of his transition. Despite towering over a lot of his matchups at 6'9", 220 pounds, his quick-twitch reactions and advanced instincts have made him a mobile barrier blocking the league's most potent players.

"I think he's really shown a great deal of resistance to some of these top scorers, being one of those perimeter take-the-assignment-of-the-top-scorer-each-night type of guys," Vogel said. "He's embraced that, and he's doing a good job with it."

That's underselling Gordon's defensive impact. Despite drawing Orlando's toughest assignments, he's holding opponents 4.1 percent below their normal field-goal rates.

But defense was already the most powerful weapon in his arsenal. And the gap between that and the rest of his game has widened as his offense has regressed.

"Offensively, you have to do a lot of different things for your team to win," Gordon said.

He's never leaned more heavily on his work-in-progress jumper, posting career highs in both average shot distance (13.6 feet) and three-point rate (31.8 percent of his attempts). He's also never been assisted on fewer of his two-point baskets (45.7 percent, down from 51.7 last season).

There's hope that stepping so far out of his comfort zone could pay major dividends down the line. Right now, he's experimenting with different elements of his game. Should he harness them, the 21-year-old will have a fuller toolbox to pull from over the course of his career.

He's had flashes where everything has come together, like his career-high 33-point thrashing of the Los Angeles Clippers and their fifth-ranked defense.

"I was just taking what they were giving me," Gordon said of the unexpected outburst. "They were putting a smaller defender on me, so I took him to the block. When they had a bigger defender on me, I brought him out to the perimeter.

"I just made the game easier on myself."

Now, he needs Orlando to do the same.

The roster requires restructuring to put him back at his best position: He's a power forward by trade, and the Magic should treat him as such. Assuming he moves back to his natural post at some point, a lot of what he's struggling to learn now might be discarded later on.

He's in the bottom 50th percentile of finishers as an isolation player (0.79 points per possession, 41.4 percentile) and pick-and-roll ball-handler (0.38, 4.0). His field-goal percentage plummets from 47.9 to 34.2 when he possesses the ball for at least two seconds.

He doesn't look capable of consistently creating his own shot, a weakness scouts noticed during his one-and-done year at Arizona, as Derek Bodner of DraftExpress noted.

That doesn't have to be detrimental. His speed and incredible leaping ability make him an asset in transition and on cuts to the basket. His first step is quick enough to beat defenders on straight-line drives, and his developing stroke could open some catch-and-shoot options.

"His mechanics are pretty good," Magic swingman Evan Fournier said. "[The challenge] for him is going to be consistency and keep getting the repetitions, because the mechanics are there. I'm pretty confident one day he's going to be a pretty good shooter."

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 14: Aaron Gordon #00 of the Orlando Magic shoots the ball during the game against the Los Angeles Clippers on December 14, 2016 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
Gary Bassing/Getty Images

Unleash Gordon as a small-ball big, and he instantly becomes a tough cover. A mismatch instead of mismatched.

His athletic advantage grows even more pronounced, and concerns with his shooting and dribble moves lessen. He routinely beats opponents down the floor, generating easy looks or forcing mismatches. He's still an aerial acrobat in transition and on the offensive glass, and he can seamlessly shift through defensive assignments on pick-and-rolls.

None of this is news to Vogel, whose hands are tied until the front office rights its wrongs. Clear the frontcourt clutter, and Gordon's stock could surge again.

Because as murky as his present has become, his future means more to the Magic than anyone's. He is the roster's highest-drafted player and the rotation's youngest member. He has, at worst, a puncher's chance at stardom but only if Orlando positions him for success.

"We all believe in Aaron," Magic point guard Elfrid Payton said. "He's so versatile on both sides of the court. We know he's going to be a big asset to this team."

     

All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Statistics accurate as of Dec. 20 and used courtesy of Basketball Reference.comNBA.com and ESPN.com.

Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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