If you don’t actively watch the Orlando Magic, their top selection from the 2014 Draft, No. 4 overall pick Aaron Gordon, can look like something of a bust. In his rookie year, the then-19-year old posted the underwhelming numbers of: 47 total games played, 17 minutes per game, and just 5.2 points per game. Combine that with some numbers from Gordon’s one season at the University of Arizona—a 42.2% free throw percentage—and it starts to look puzzling why Gordon was ever considered a lottery talent in the first place.
Watch Gordon in action, however, and you can see why the Magic made a huge investment in his future, drafting him with names like Dante Exum, Marcus Smart, and Julius Randle on the board. The main thing to get excited about is Gordon’s tenacious, muscular defense. At a ripped 6’9″, Gordon has a stronger and wider frame than most (if not all) of the small forwards he is matched up against, and Gordon also has the foot speed to keep up with the most three-point-oriented perimeter player. Considering that Gordon is already above-average at the NBA level for these skills at age 20, it certainly looks like he has a bright future ahead.
While the Orlando Magic knew about Gordon’s limited shooting range when they drafted him, injuries were not a part of Gordon’s résumé in the past. After missing a huge chunk of last season with a broken foot, Gordon broke his jaw off the court this summer and accordingly has played in only one of Orlando’s six preseason games to date. However: that one game, a 17-minute stint at home against the Miami Heat last weekend, was an electric performance that showed Gordon’s capabilities of disrupting a game with his defense alone.
According to data from NBA.com, Gordon posted a 66.3 Defensive Rating in this game—an unsustainably elite mark. (The league’s best defenders will end the season with a Rating somewhere in the mid-90’s.) While an individual, one-game Defensive Rating is exactly the type of statistic that is subject to small-sample-size distortions, I think that, in this case, the elite statistic is indicative of Gordon’s tangible effect on the game.
In last week’s game, Gordon was mostly tasked with guarding Miami’s Gerald Green, who has turned into the rare combination of savage dunker and wily vet. Gordon’s defense helps the Magic hold the Heat scoreless for three straight possessions in the second quarter.
On the first possession, Green gives himself a step’s advantage over Gordon using a slight push-off, operating in a give-and-go with Heat center Chris Andersen:
As Green looks for the baseline jumper, Gordon has the foot speed to catch up to Green before he can rise for the shot. The shot is well-defended (note also Magic center Dewayne Dedmon cutting off the baseline drive), and is a harmless, low-percentage miss:
On the next possession, Green works as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll along with undrafted rookie Greg Whittington. Gordon and Dedmon again work in concert to dissolve the possession. They allow Whittington to pop to the outside and both blitz Green. The pressure results in a steal for Gordon:
And then on the next possession, Green attempts a jump shot and Gordon skies up and swats it out of bounds.
Considering that Gordon only played in three Summer League games since the end of the last regular season, the fact that he can deliver this type of performance on a night when he is theoretically just shaking off the rust is a great sign on the eve of his sophomore season.