Scottie Pippen walked to the media gate at McKale Center in the late afternoon of Feb. 9, an hour before Arizona would beat Oregon State 76-54.
He removed his sunglasses, showed an ID that identified him as a scout for the Chicago Bulls and asked to be directed to the media office.
“Who are you here to watch?” a man at the desk asked.
“Everybody,” said Pippen, who put his sunglasses back into place and then added, “Gordon.”
Pippen didn’t stop to chat, but when he filed his scouting report he wouldn’t have been wrong to say, “I see a lot of myself in Aaron Gordon at McKale Center.”
Twenty-seven years earlier, Pippen was a mechanically challenged shooter from small-time Central Arkansas selected fifth overall by the Seattle SuperSonics and then traded to the Chicago Bulls.
Pippen shot 17 percent from three-point distance and 57 percent from the foul line his rookie season. He was all arms and legs, a lock-down defensive player with a 7-footer’s wingspan and explosive jumping ability.
The Bulls would wait for Pippen to develop his shooting touch; he was such an extraordinary athlete, with team-first principles, that he was drafted ahead of skilled shooters such as UCLA’s Reggie Miller and Cal’s Kevin Johnson.
Is this the making of Pippen II?
In his rookie season at Arizona, Gordon is shooting 28 percent from three-point distance and 45 percent from the foul line. The numbers guys at various websites have tracked his offensive game to such depths that they say he is shooting 17 percent on all shots that aren’t layups or dunks.
And yet Gordon was the Pac-12’s Freshman of the Year. Entering the league tournament today in Las Vegas, he is probably the most well-known and identifiable player in the field, and certainly the Pac-12’s most highly ranked NBA draft prospect.
Arizona has never had a player like him.
He has scored the fewest points of Arizona’s seven Pac-12 Freshman of the Year winners: Sean Elliott, Chase Budinger and Derrick Williams all averaged at least 15 points a game.
Michael Wright was a superior rebounder, 8.8 to Gordon’s 7.8, and in no way is Gordon a clutch shooter the way Mike Bibby was in becoming the NCAA’s 1997 Freshman of the Year, or the way Salim Stoudamire was; Stoudamire shot 91 percent from the foul line in his FOY season.
The Gordon that Scottie Pippen scouted on Feb. 9 was at his best: He made seven layups and a rare three-pointer. He played within himself, making 8 of 9 shots during a stretch in which Arizona pulled away.
The detractors cry that Gordon has no middle game, and they are right. Teams will back off and dare him (please, please) to shoot an open 18-footer, but he has mostly resisted.
His free-throw shooting is the lowest for a starter in school history; ironically, UA assistant coach Joseph Blair is the only starter even close. Blair shot 46.2 percent in his four Arizona seasons.
But in spite of his well-chronicled shooting limitations, Gordon’s field goal percentage is 48.6. That’s exactly, to the decimal, what Elliott shot in his FOY season, 48.6.
Much of it is that Gordon has made 43 dunks. It seems like 143. If he can get six more in the postseason, he’ll pass Hassan Adams, who is believed to hold the UA season record with 48 dunks in 2005-06, although dunking statistics aren’t thorough.
Dunking is one thing. Defense is another.
Gordon’s defense is what keeps him on the court and the NBA scouts piling through the door. Over the past 25 years, the UA’s top defensive player was probably Bennett Davison, who, like Gordon, was not a skilled shooter; Davison averaged 8.6 points in a career that included the 1997 national title.
But Davison could guard almost all five positions on the court, anyone, any size. And now, so too, can Gordon.
UA coach Sean Miller last week marveled that since Brandon Ashley’s injury, Gordon has not played small forward, his natural position, at all.
“He’s been at the 4 and the 5 exclusively,” Miller said in Oregon last week. “He has more than held his own.”
By now, all NBA teams have a full dossier on Gordon. They know he limited Duke’s Jabari Parker to 7 for 21 shooting. They know he locked down Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III and held him to four second-half points.
They also know, much like a young Pippen, an avowed gym-rat like Gordon is apt to correct his shooting mechanics over the next few seasons. Scouts know that Pippen went from a 57 percent foul shooter to one who shot 81 percent in 2003. They know Pippen went from an inept distance shooter to one who would make as many as 156 three-pointers in an NBA season.
In the limited time Gordon has remaining as a college basketball player, his assignment isn’t to shoot the lights out, but rather to play defense, keep on dunkin’ and put out the other guy’s lights.