Aaron Gordon turns 19 years old today. He is raw, with no NBA experience under his belt. To transform the Orlando Magic rookie into the player many project him to become, he will need a lot of work — but don’t worry, that will come with time and experience. And while it is the offensive side of Gordon’s game, specifically his shooting ability, that needs help, there is a facet to his skill-set that is already elite: Defense. (Did you see what he did during summer league?!) Here’s why Aaron Gordon Will Win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award Within 5 Years.
In his one-and-done season of NCAA basketball at the University of Arizona last year, the then-18-year-old arguably made more of an impact on this side of the ball than any single player in the country. Gordon’s defensive rating — points allowed per 100 possessions — was 88.6, which ranked 13th nationally. His defensive win shares total — a measurement that estimates the number of wins a player contributes to their team due to their defense — was 3.3, which ranked No. 1 in the country.
Dwight Howard. Joakim Noah. Marc Gasol. These are names of players who are almost synonymous with elite defense — big men who have combined to win five out of the last six NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards. Soon, within the next five seasons, there will be a new face of defense. It will be Aaron Gordon.
Can it be considered crazy to predict that someone who has yet to appear in a meaningful professional basketball game will rise to high status so quickly? In most cases, the answer would be yes. Yet in the case of Aaron Gordon, the 6-9, 225-pound monster in the paint is anything but normal. Expecting the ordinary from him would be naïve.
Gordon’s impressive athleticism, combined with his high basketball IQ, give him the intangibles that will allow him to take the defensive leap in the NBA. He is already a strong rebounder and quality shot-blocker, with the ability to move his feet well and guard multiple positions on the floor.
In Arizona’s 72-66 victory over Duke last November, Gordon matched-up against freshman counterpart Jabari Parker, who was selected No. 2 overall in June’s NBA Draft and is widely considered to be the most-ready rookie for the league. While Parker did score a respectable 19 points, Gordon forced him into 21 shots, making the fellow phenom attempt long-range shots and never allowing him to create a rhythm. The Milwaukee Bucks forward missed all five tries from three-point range, while turning the ball over five times. It was one of Parker’s five worst shooting games of the season, and the worst of his career at that point.
This, however, was not an isolated performance. Just weeks later, Gordon propelled his Wildcats to a thrilling 72-70 win over Michigan that kept Arizona perfect on the season. Heading into the second half down by nine with their undefeated year on the line, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year took on the responsibility of guarding the Wolverines’ hottest player.
“Glenn was really heating up in the first half, so I took it upon myself to do the defensive assignment on him in the second half,” Gordon said, via The Sporting News.
Gordon was referring to now-Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Glenn Robinson III, who dropped 16 points on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting in the first half against Arizona. Once Gordon began guarding the Michigan big man, Robinson III struggled, adding just four points while his team blew their lead and lost to Gordon’s No. 1 squad.
Despite these impressive outings and statistics, there are those who continue to disregard Gordon’s elite defense. Critics point out the possibility that he will have trouble defending power forwards and centers at just 6-9, but — as previously stated — he has already proven his worth against all kinds of opponents, and while the NBA is a different beast than college ball, Gordon is still a teenager and will have time (if he even needs it) to develop into the Defensive Player of the Year type he will become, or may already be.
According to Synergy Sports, players shot just 37.5 percent against Gordon in the post last season — a good indication of what is to come at the next level. When trying to isolate the freshman, opponents connected on a lowly 31.4 percent of their attempts. They turned the ball over 17.8 percent of that time, more of a confirmation of his defensive dominance than their pedestrian play.
It is, however, important to note that Arizona boasted one of the nation’s top defensive squads. While Gordon is undoubtedly a large part of that success, there were others, such as 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski and 6-8, 230-pound forward Brandon Ashley, who contributed and bolstered the Wildcats into the sixth-best defensive team in the country, allowing just 58.6 points per game.
But it was Gordon who served as Arizona’s glue guy, a significant trait he will bring to the NBA with the Magic. Compared to underappreciated yet invaluable players like Kenneth Faried, Andrei Kirilenko, and Shawn Marion, he may not lead Orlando in scoring but he will stuff stat-sheets and be the most active guy on the floor, contributing in a variety of ways that often come with Defensive Player of the Year candidates.
Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA. Each season, there are players projected to be studs who do not develop into what the experts predict. That will not change. Yet Aaron Gordon — while still with skills to sharpen — is already on the cusp of the best the world has to offer.
The teenager is coming, and coming fast.
Follow Matthew on Twitter at @MatthewHochberg