After hitting his first three-pointer in nearly two months on Sunday, Aaron Gordon was asked about not attempting many lately.
“Uh, no,” Gordon said, cracking a small smile. “I haven’t made one.”
Of course, that’s been the biggest weakness: Arizona’s well-regarded freshman forward has a jumper that defenses don’t have to respect and free throws that can float away from the rim. He’s a 29.6 percent three-point shooter and makes just 41.8 percent of his free throws.
He knows it, you know it, and NBA scouts know it.
But Gordon is still widely projected as a lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft, the Wildcats’ best NBA prospect, partly for that reason: He has an unusual self-awareness, a non-stop focus on fixing whatever flaws he has, and an emphasis on all aspects of the game.
“A lot of it is instincts, and a lot of it is talent, but where it relies is on his mind,” said UA coach Sean Miller, when asked about Gordon’s defense. “He cares a lot about what we’re doing. He cares a lot about his own performance. And because he knows the type of player that he is, he doesn’t always judge himself like so many players do, by points per game, shot attempts.
“He really has a feel for knowing where he’s gifted is in some of these other areas like rebounding and defense. There’s been a number of times where he’ll apologize after a game because he had single-digit rebounds. He’s sincere with it. That’s just who he is.”
Then, after Gordon apologizes, he’s likely to head back to the gym before long.
“He’s going to have to get better, no doubt about it,” said Jonathan Givony, president of Draft Express, a scouting website. “But the best thing about Aaron Gordon is he’s a workaholic. He has athleticism, intensity and a great feel for the game, but his work ethic is off the charts.
“I’ve heard from team managers at Arizona that are saying: ‘This guy just won’t stop. It’s like all hours of the night. You can’t keep him out of the gym. It’s unreal.’
“That’s a great sign.”
Of course, NBA scouts are also attracted to Gordon’s elite athleticism, basketball IQ, defensive fundamentals … and the fact that he’s only 18 years old, with plenty of time to improve on whatever he lacks now.
While NBA personnel aren’t allowed to comment on underclassmen until they have entered the draft pool, here’s one look at how Gordon’s game is being further broken down:
Not only has Gordon been a strong defender as a freshman, he’s doing so at two vastly different positions, small forward and power forward.
Miller said he’s never coached a freshman who could do that well before.
“What makes it unique is … he plays the low post but he also turns around and guards perimeter players,” Miller said. “You look at as many ball screens in today’s game. If you’re a frontcourt player, you’re responsible for the screen. If you’re a perimeter player you’re responsible for the player on the ball.
“There’s a lot that goes into it. You have to be bright and talented, and that’s what Aaron has given us.”
Wherever he’s playing on defense, Gordon is known for sliding efficiently with good feet and for extending out and keeping hands in shooters’ faces.
CBSSports’ Matt Moore wrote that Gordon’s “lateral movement is terrific for a forward his size,” and Draft Express’ Mike Schmitz wrote in a video scouting report that Gordon is “excellent” at sliding his feet without fouling.
Gordon rates No. 300 nationally, according to KenPom.com, in fouls committed at 2.4 per 40 minutes played.
Of all the times Gordon has an opportunity for an offensive rebound, he grabs it 11.2 percent of the time, the 190th-best mark among players nationally, according to KenPom.
Gordon is the Wildcats’ leading offensive rebounder, with 2.9 per game on average, a big reason why Arizona has an average of 3.8 more offensive rebounds than their opponents per game.
Draft Express’ video analysis of Gordon cited a “quick second jump” as a reason for his effectiveness on the offensive glass.
Gordon’s intensity and athleticism give him the ability to get to the basket with authority, a skill that can translate well to the NBA.
Gordon “can face up at a high point, rip through and attack the rim,” Draft Express wrote, adding that on a catch-and-finish he has “good hands, elevates quickly and is a good drive-and-dish target for guards.”
Maybe that can make up for any shooting trouble.
“Any conversation about Gordon includes his jump shot; it has been unreliable, and it may force him to be an NBA power forward, where it won’t be such a liability,” wrote Sports Illustrated, in its latest mock draft. “Still, Gordon’s absurd athleticism has NBA execs eager to mold him.”
Especially for an 18-year-old, Gordon knows exactly where to be as a help defender and how to best get to the basket.
That, combined with his athleticism and intensity, gets him past bigger and more experienced players.
“Gordon’s best offensive skill is his ability to make reads on cuts,” wrote CBSSports’ Moore. “He has lightning-quick recognition of when his defender has fallen asleep and understands the spacing to find himself buckets.”
At 6 feet 9 inches and 225 pounds, Gordon may be something between a traditional power forward and a small forward.
At Arizona, he played both positions until power forward Brandon Ashley was lost for the season on Feb. 1. Gordon was an able defender at small forward but lacked some perimeter skills; he has been more effective offensively at power forward.
Because of questions about his position, ESPN’s Chad Ford has written that Gordon has been a somewhat “divisive” player among NBA personnel.
“Until he develops a jumper, NBA teams are concerned that he won’t generate the offense he needs to justify a top-10 pick,” Ford wrote last month, though he earlier noted that “some scouts aren’t sure he really needs to be a three (small forward) to excel in the NBA.”
As powerful as Gordon is inside, he still has only the 225 pounds on a relatively narrow frame. Draft Express noted that he also misses out on some rebounds because he has average length for his size and can be bumped out of the way by more physical power forwards.
“Can play small forward but could use more bulk to play power forward,” Draft Express’ analysis said. “Can he fill out? Has slightly narrow frame.”
This one is easily the most obvious weakness in Gordon’s game, noticeable to the point where even McKale Center fans will cheer with particular excitement after he makes a three or free throw.
“That’s the biggest concern about him,” Givony said. “But you have to keep in mind, he’s the youngest prospect in this draft class.
“He’s very much a work in progress, which is almost kind of a good thing considering he already affects the game in so many ways. He’s a huge reason why Arizona has been the No. 1 and No. 2 team in the country.”