Aaron Gordon possesses the athleticism, size, instincts, and talent. He has, as NBA types like to say, the motor.
The rangy, high-flying 6-foot-9-inch forward also can be a matchup nightmare, as the tantalizing highlights from his freshman year at Arizona attest.
He is also the youngest player in Thursday’s NBA Draft, as he won’t turn 19 until Sept. 16. Add it all up, and Gordon is considered a top-10 lock. But once he is selected, Gordon will, according to NBA scouts and executives, be forced to go down one of two roads.
He can choose to be a small forward.
Or he can choose to be a power forward.
This is no small decision. In fact, those in the NBA consider his choice in the matter to be possibly the most important factor in determining what kind of career Gordon will have — one in which he lives up to his potential, or one in which he squanders it.
“See, he thinks he’s a small forward,” said one Western Conference scout. “That’s not what he is.”
Gordon played small forward at Arizona, where he averaged 12.4 points and 8 rebounds per game as the Wildcats advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight.
“That’s the reason he went to Arizona,” said another Western Conference scout. “They promised him he could be a [small forward], and they did. They put him out there, I think, to the detriment of their team.”
“If he embraces what he does really well, which is run, jump, play with energy, play above the rim, he’s going to have a phenomenal NBA career,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “If he wants to prove to everyone that he’s a wing and he can shoot, then I think you’re going to have some problems, a la Derrick Williams.”
The 6-8 Williams also played at Arizona, where he spent a fair amount of time on the wing. He was drafted second overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2011, and has struggled in three NBA seasons, averaging 9.6 points in his career.
“[Gordon] is not Derrick, but when Derrick made his rounds with lottery teams, he was telling everyone, ‘I’m a small forward. I’m not an undersized power forward,’ ” the Eastern Conference scout said.
“Aaron is taller of course, but Aaron’s best attributes are an incredible, incredible motor, his athleticism, his ability to run the floor and play above the rim. But if he thinks he’s something more than that, I think you have a little bit of a problem on your hands.”
Gordon has heard this concern.
“Teams get this misconception that I’m caught up on a position,” he said after a recent workout with the Celtics. “I’m not caught up on a position. I’ll come in and play any position that you want me to play and I’ll guard any position that you want me to play.”
Austin Ainge, the Celtics’ director of player personnel, said Gordon could play both forward positions, though he probably would have to play small forward until he bulks up, as he’s currently around 220 pounds.
But Gordon’s athleticism is among the best in this draft class, and he posted a 39-inch vertical leap at the Chicago combine to reinforce that fact.
“Gordon, after [Andrew] Wiggins, is the best innate athlete, and when I say innate athlete, I mean in terms of running, jumping, quick, double- and triple-jumpers,” said one Western Conference scout. “He's great off the ground.”
“Some guys are great jumpers and then they go down . . . but he’s going to jump two or three times in a sequence of jumps. He’s great off the ground.”
Gordon’s rim-rattling dunks have earned him comparisons with Los Angeles Clippers star forward Blake Griffin, though scouts and executives say Gordon is closer to forward Kenneth Faried, a rebounding dynamo for the Denver Nuggets.
“That is the guy that I compare him to,” said one Western Conference executive. “He doesn’t rebound at the rate that Faried did [in college], but Faried got most of the rebounds for his team in college and he gets a lot in the NBA. He’s a terrific rebounder.
“I think Gordon is probably not that type, but the thing about Gordon and Faried, their similarities, is they play every possession. They don’t take any possessions off. They pursue the ball out of their area better than just about any other players. I think Gordon did it as well as anyone in college and Faried does it better than anyone in the NBA, pursuing balls out of their area. Rebounding in a crowd. Both of them come up with balls in a crowd, which is pretty important.”
However, there are major concerns about Gordon’s offensive game, particularly his shooting.
He shot 50 percent from the floor, though most of his shots were from point-blank range. From the free throw line, though, he shot just 42 percent.
“Gordon, he’s got a long way to go offensively,” the Western Conference executive said. “He’s not a good shooter. He’s got a lot of things he needs to work on with his shot. He can score around the basket. He’s got a tremendous feel and great instinct. He’ll contribute right away just because of his energy. I really like him.”
Said one Eastern Conference scout, “He’s never probably going to have a skill offensively, but just because he’s athletic and plays hard, he’ll always be able to finish around the rim. I think in time, he’ll be able to get at least a set shot down where if you leave him open, he’ll be able to make a few buckets.
“I saw him at a game against Colorado and he made a couple free throws in a row. As soon as he made those free throws, his entire demeanor changed. You could just see the smile on his face, and all of the sudden, the kid, for the next five or six minutes of the game, just dominated. I think his free throw shooting and his confidence, that probably messes with the rest of his game.”
Said one Eastern Conference executive, “The biggest thing is his free throw shooting. That will be the thing. If he can improve that, that means he can stay on the court in key situations, because the way the NBA works, he’ll get fouled instantly if he’s on the court. If he can improve that and make it to where it’s not a liability . . . ”
One Eastern Conference executive compared Gordon with Kenyon Martin, a former No. 1 overall pick who played 14 seasons in the NBA.
“They’re like a thin power forward,” the executive said. “I don’t consider them undersized, but they’re not a big power forward. Just like Kenyon, [Gordon is] so athletic that it will make up for any lack of bulk that he has.”
One Western Conference scout said he could see that Martin-Gordon comparison.
“Martin was longer, probably an inch or two taller,” the scout said. “The thing is, Martin knew he was a [power forward], and when he was healthy, he was one of the best rebounders, post defenders, runner, jumper [power forwards] in the league. Gordon still thinks he’s a [small forward].”
An Eastern Conference executive added, “He’s quick enough, agile enough, has the high enough motor, high enough IQ to where he can get the job done. He’s the type of player, just like with Kenyon, that if you run a pick-and-roll with him, you’ve got no worries at all because he’ll stay in front of the point guard and just do what needs to get done.”
But, again, Gordon’s NBA fate could simply boil down to the position that he’ll play.