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Q&A: Aaron Gordon on Magic’s Moves, Playoff Goal

Aaron Gordon discusses his offseason training, 2016-17 expectations, Orlando’s moves and more.

Alex Kennedy

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It’s hard to believe that Orlando Magic forward is Aaron Gordon is only 20 years old. Yes, the player who wowed the nation in February’s NBA incredible dunk contest isn’t old enough to legally order a beer.

Gordon has done quite well since becoming the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, especially when considering much of his play came as a teenager against full-grown men. This success is in large part due to his freakish athleticism, but also because of his high basketball IQ, intense work ethic and terrific motor. For us mere mortals, it can be exhausting to just watch Gordon constantly hustle on defense, burst out into transition and dunk over anyone who stands in his way.

Some physical specimens who defy gravity may be tempted to coast off of these gifts or take a play off every now and then. Not Gordon. His ability to impact the game in many different ways is what most impresses people around the NBA. Gordon’s per-100-possession averages of 19.3 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks show that he makes his presence felt all over the court.

Last season, there were some growing pains and mistakes that young players sometimes make – particularly those who play with reckless abandon at times. However, Gordon did well when given significant playing time. He averaged 9.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 0.8 steals in 23.9 minutes per game. In the 37 games he started, his averages climbed to 11.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 0.9 steals in 28.6 minutes.

But it’s clear that, barring something catastrophic, Gordon’s best basketball is ahead of him. Because he’s still so young and has played relatively few minutes in his first two seasons, his upside is what has most people understandably excited.

Combine Gordon’s seemingly unlimited potential with a desire to be great and intense work ethic, and it’s obvious why many are predicting that this upcoming campaign could be a breakout year for the Magic forward. He’ll likely see more minutes in his third season, his defense-first mentality fits with new head coach Frank Vogel’s overall philosophy and he should benefit from Orlando playing a more up-tempo offense. Also, his comfort level and confidence have never been higher.

Basketball Insiders recently caught up with Gordon to discuss his offseason training, expectations for next season, Orlando’s playoff goal, the Magic’s busy summer and much more.

Alex Kennedy: What have you been working on this offseason and what has your training regimen been like?

Aaron Gordon: “My training regimen has been absolutely hectic. I’ve being doing two-a-days and three-a-days to try to get ready for the season. I’m ready. I’ve been ready. I was ready the day that we lost to Charlotte on our last day of the season – I wanted to start another 82 games right then. I knew that it couldn’t happen, but I wanted it. (laughs) Now, I’ve taken this offseason to work on my ball-handling, passing, shooting. Also, being able to shoot over defenders’ hands when they’re closing out on threes or being able to take one dribble and rise to pull up over everybody. I’ve been working on making decisions out of the pick-and-roll. I know with with Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka, I’m going to have a roll guy and a pop guy. And with Vooch [Nik Vucevic], I’ll have a little bit of both – a guy who can roll and pop. It’s going to be on me to either score off of the pick-and-roll or make the right read to get the ball to my guy in the best spot. I’m ready.”

Kennedy: Many people are predicting that this could be a breakout year for you. Do you expect that to be the case?

Gordon: “I think when you say ‘breakout,’ most people think of statistics and how well you play. To me, a breakout year means the level of fun and joy that I receive from the game. And yes, I think this year I’ll be much more joyful when I play, much happier when I play. I think I’ll be much more confident in my play. If those three things lead to a breakout year, then yeah, I believe that I’m ready.”

Kennedy: You’re only 20 years old. That’s hard to believe since you’re entering your third NBA season and you’re very mature, but how much more room do you feel you have to grow? What do you think your ultimate ceiling is?

Gordon: “It’s really hard to say. It really is. I think if I continue to work diligently and I’m smart about it… One of my problems is that I work a little bit too hard and come game time, my body isn’t ready. This year, I was able to take [time] off and make sure my body was ready for 82 games. If I stay healthy… When I stay healthy and when I stay in the present, I think my potential is limitless. I basically get to decide how great I can be.”

Kennedy: One thing I find interesting is that you work with mental skills coach Graham Betchart on mindfulness training and you’ve been doing it since you were a kid. You guys even formed an organization and app called Lucid. I know you do things like breathing exercises, meditation, visualization, positive affirmations and things like that. How much has that benefited your game?

Gordon: “I started working with Graham when I was going from eighth grade to ninth grade. I was basically going from being a big fish in a little pond to being a little fish in a big pond. I knew that I needed something to help my game and continue to keep me on the right track. Graham introduced this to me at 13 years old and from then on, the ball was just rolling. I think it’s helped me a tremendous amount. We use basketball as a medium, but we just talk about life. He’s also helped me with situations in my life that have nothing to do with basketball. We talk about money, materialistic things, existential things – some things that normal basketball players may not talk about with their sports psychologist. He’s become a mentor for me. He’s helped me see that there’s more to life than just basketball and I’m eternally grateful for that.”

(For more on Betchart’s mental skills training and his work with NBA players like Gordon, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons and Andrew Wiggins, check back for my article later this week.)

Kennedy: Whenever prospects are going through the draft process, people ask them which players they study and things like that. But having played in the NBA for two years, you’ve been able to take some things from players after going up against them and it’s easier to emulate guys. Are there any players that have influenced your game after playing against them?

Gordon: “Yeah, a little bit, definitely. I love looking at guys like Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kevin Durant and LeBron James – how he commands the game. I like to the see the greats in my area, the big wings who are also kind of guard-like distributors too. Those guys are really fun to watch for me. I love watching their film, and it helps me lock in to what I need to do for my team.”

Kennedy: At the 2014 NBA Draft Combine, I remember some reporters were concerned about your lack of a clear-cut position and questioned you about it. You just kept responding, “I’m a basketball player,” and stated you’d play wherever your coach played you. At the time, some viewed you as a “tweener” back when that word was still used. Now, being versatile enough to play multiple positions is extremely valued and viewed as a strength. How has that shift in the league benefitted you?

Gordon: “Oh man, it’s huge. We can play small, we can play big. I can play the two, the three or the four, and it all depends on what my coach sees. He’ll say, ‘Aaron, we have an advantage at the four, go get him.’ The foundation is defense though. If you can’t guard the position, you can’t play the position. I’m able to guard all of those positions so therefore I can play them and it opens things up.”

Kennedy: How confident are you now compared to when you first came into the league? You were a pretty confident guy entering the NBA, but how much more confident and comfortable are you now?

Gordon: “I would say much more. I’ve had two years under my belt. One year, I had to sit out due to injury and only play 47 games. Then, I had a year of playing the entire season. Having both experiences – sitting out and learning versus playing the full season – helped me. I also have three more years of working with Graham Betchart and Lucid. I would say that when I came into the league, I still needed validation. Now, I don’t need any validation. I play for joy and the fun of it. That’s all that I need in my life.”

Kennedy: You were well-known by big NBA fans before last year’s dunk contest, but you became a household name overnight after going head to head with Zach LaVine. How much did your life change after that and did that give you some of that validation you wanted?

Gordon: “Yeah, that was incredible. As a little kid, I’ve always wanted to be part of a dunk contest, and of course I’ve always wanted to be in the NBA dunk contest. I got that opportunity and I did the best that I could.  To me, that was all of the validation that I needed. I set out to achieve a goal and I executed it. After that, people were saying that I’m one of the best dunkers in the NBA. For me, that was amazing and all I needed. I wanted people to see what I saw and, you know, they did. They saw the creativity, the innovation, the joy and how much I love the game come out through my dunks.”

Kennedy: Are you going to do the dunk contest again this year?

Gordon: “I’m not 100 percent sure. I kind of gave a lot in this last one and to be more creative would be difficult. I think I could do it, but I’m not sure if I’m going to.”

Kennedy: You have a new head coach in Frank Vogel. How do you feel you fit in with Coach’s Vogel’s style and what have you guys discussed in terms of what role you’ll play?

Gordon: “I think he wants me to do a whole lot of everything, from defending to distributing to scoring. We’re going to need to score the ball this year and I’m looking to take on a bigger scoring role. Defensively, I want to guard the best player on the other team every night. These are things that I want, but they are also things I want from my teammates. I want them to say, ‘No, I want to guard the best player.’ And we have those type of players. Serge, Bismack, Jeff [Green], EP [Elfrid Payton] are guys who would love to do that. They all want that challenge and I love playing with guys like that. It’s always team-first with me and I’m going to do whatever I can to help my team win.”

Kennedy: The front office brought in a lot of veterans such as Ibaka, Biyombo, Green, D.J. Augustin and Jodie Meeks. What did you think of the additions? They’re clearly win-now moves.

Gordon: “It’s just exciting to me. I’ve always trusted Rob Hennigan and I’ve always trusted Scott Perry. To me, it validates my trust in them. They made moves that other people couldn’t have made. They were confident, aggressive moves. Now, it’s on us. We’re ready to play. We have the coach, the staff, the players, the organization. We have a foundation of players who have been there and been through the losing, and now it’s time to start winning.”

Kennedy: Clearly, making the playoffs is the goal. Do you feel that this team has what it takes? And if you guys aren’t in the postseason, is that a disappointment?

Gordon: “Oh, of course. Of course. We are a playoff team. I haven’t stepped foot in the gym with everyone yet, but just through our text messages and calls, that’s where everybody’s mindset is at. They’re ready, and I’m ready as well. Really, we have to play present. We need to take each game and play it like it’s our last. If we do that, we’re going to have a very successful season.”

Kennedy: Do you have any Individual goals for next season?

Gordon: “I just want to play confidently and courageously. I’m not all that goal-oriented; I’m more of a process-oriented person. If I play with love and joy, then everything will take care of itself. You’re definitely going to see me playing with a lot of joy and it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m ready for it to start right now.”

Kennedy: You just returned from a trip from China. What was that experience like?

Gordon: “China was amazing. Having basketball take me to the other side of the world is still hard for me to comprehend. I went out there and did a lot of clinics for children, which was great. We went to Nike [Rise Academy]. We played in Yao Ming’s charity game, raising $1.5 million for underprivileged kids. We also helped out with a contest called ‘Dunk China’ and put on a little show for everyone. It was great.”

 

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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