Leading up to the NBA Draft on June 26, we’ll take a look at some of the prospects the Celtics are believed to be targeting with picks No. 6 and 17.
Today, we’ll continue our Celtics Prospect Report series with Arizona star and consensus Top-10 selection Aaron Gordon.
Arizona forward Aaron Gordon is considered to be one of the top few athletes in next week’s NBA Draft, and a number of mock drafts have the “tweener” projected to be selected by the Celtics with the sixth overall pick.
If that prophecy comes to fruition, perhaps he’d have a few more opportunities to catch some shut-eye on the red line.
Barring a trade or some outside-the-box thinking, Boston is expected to take one of three power forwards – Gordon, Kentucky’s Julius Randle (previously profiled here), or Indiana’s Noah Vonleh – or point guard Marcus Smart from Oklahoma State. It’s easy to make a case for any member of that group.
Gordon averaged 12.4 points and 8 rebounds per game over 38 contests during his freshman season for the Wildcats, where he shot 49.5 percent from the field (most of that success coming close to the basket), 35.6 percent on just 45 attempts from distance, and a paltry 42.2 percent from the free throw line – an area he claims to be much improved since his college season ended. For his efforts, the San Jose, California native was named the Pac-12’s Freshman of the Year, a conference first-teamer, and a third team All-American.
He averaged 14.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks in his team’s four NCAA tournament games, capped by top-ranked Arizona’s Elite 8 overtime exit at the hands of Wisconsin. In that showdown, Gordon scored 8 points on 3-of-11 shooting and hauled in 18 rebounds. His 303 total boards (102, offensive) were the most for a Wildcats freshman in school history.
There’s a world of promise surrounding the 18-year-old Gordon, the youngest player in the draft (he won’t turn 19 until September). Along with his supreme confidence, basketball intellect, freakish athleticism, and insane jumping ability, he’s explosive, has a good handle, and is almost famously a versatile defensive presence. Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge told the media at Gordon’s workout last Thursday that, in time, the forward is expected to be able to guard any position on the floor.
But, how ready is he now?
“He’s like a lot of kids who come out nowadays – ready enough,” according to Anthony Gimino, who spoke with me recently on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Celtics at 7” program. Gimino has covered the Wildcats for more than two decades at various outlets, including the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Citizen.
“Would another year of college have suited him better? Probably,” Gimino continued, “but it’s pretty rare that a guy projected where he is (anywhere between the 5th and 10th picks) comes back. I don’t think he’s a guy who’s going to come in and immediately transform a struggling team. I could see him early on in his career as being a very good complementary part, but the offensive part of his game does need a lot of work and development.”
Gordon’s offensive game unquestionably needs improvement. If he’s grabbing a defensive rebound and gets off to the races, he has the ability to be a one-man fast-break. But, in the offensive end (aside from his presence on the glass), he’s a non-factor in the post. Thanks to an off-season overhaul of his mechanics and continued repetition, his jumper is improving – as evidence by a good showing at the NBA Combine and in team workouts – but he struggles to create his own shot and has a ways to go before it’s going to be viewed as a viable, consistent threat. And, as noted earlier, he’s been atrocious from the charity stripe outside of the practice court, where Arizona head coach Sean Miller used to tell reporters the forward was closer to a 70-75 percent success rate.
In other words, Danny Ainge – or any other decision-maker across the league – wouldn’t be drafting Gordon for his offensive gifts.
“There’s a lot of things he can handle right away,” said Gimino. “He’ll be able to play defense, rebound, and clean stuff up around the rim, but if you’re looking for him to come in and be a focal point of the offense, you probably need to look elsewhere.”
One of the biggest questions surrounding Gordon, who has also worked out for the Lakers, Kings, and Jazz to this point, is his position. At 6-foot-9 and about 225 pounds, he’s not quite big enough to be the power forward he was in college, but his offensive abilities don’t yet match up with what’s expected of a traditional small forward.
“Short-term four, long-term three,” Gimino said when asked his opinion of Gordon’s eventual position in the NBA. “He started at the three this season at Arizona and that’s what he played until Brandon Ashley got hurt, and then Arizona had to move him over to the power forward spot and it really suited him better because he had, athletically, a lot of mismatches in the post against college guys. He won’t have that in the pros because he’ll be going against much bigger guys at the four, but I think he’s probably capable of being strong enough and he’s a really willing defender and he likes it.”
So much so that Gordon has told reporters and presumably teams that he doesn’t care where he’ll play; he just wants to have a role, and he’s promised wins will follow.
Miller has praised his former star for being his hardest working player; always the first to arrive at practice and the last to leave. Unlike some prospects, there are absolutely no questions surrounding Gordon’s conditioning, effort, or work-ethic. He’s all motor, particularly on the defensive end of the floor.
So, given his young age (he’s as much as five years younger than some other future draftees), there’s plenty of time to improve upon his deficiencies.
“His form and his shooting aren’t bad – it doesn’t need a reconstruction – it just needs time,” Gimino stated of Gordon’s offensive outlook. “I think there are examples of guys who go from college who can’t shoot and then develop that over three or four years. I wouldn’t be surprised if Aaron could do the same but if you want him to do that now, he’s not your guy. He’d be a really, really nice piece, but not a guy who’s going to lead you in scoring and get you 20-plus.”
Gimino referenced former Wildcats big man and current Suns forward Channing Frye, who attempted 70 total three-pointers over his first four NBA seasons and converted on just 28.6 percent of them. Over his last four years, he’s hit on 38.9 percent of those shots – on 1,526 attempts. If given the opportunity, it’s not unthinkable Gordon could do the same.
However, as far as Gimino is concerned, Gordon won’t be Blake Griffin, to whom many evaluators have eagerly compared the youngster.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever really bought that comparison,” he said. “I’m not sure he’s as strong. I think that came from the fact that in every high school highlight tape you saw of Aaron Gordon, he was doing some kind of amazing dunk, which he did do in college as well. I think those comparisons came primarily from the dunking. The other comp is Shawn Marion. I think if you found a midpoint of those two guys, you have Aaron Gordon.”
Miller has also brushed off the Griffin comparisons, telling Celtics.com in an interview that the Clippers’ star thrives as a physical presence close to the basket, while Gordon is more of a perimeter player.
But, as a rebuilding franchise unclear on how long its climb back to contender-status will take, Boston’s brass needs to target a player with the best chance to come in and contribute immediately, not necessarily the one with the highest ceiling. Gordon is that player defensively but, when it comes to scoring, he may have an awful long road.
Below, check out a video scouting breakdown of Gordon’s game from DraftExpress.
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