Restricted free agent. Blockbuster movie star. And now, most importantly, an expensive new contract.
Needless to say, it’s been the summer of Aaron Gordon’s young life.
On Jun. 29, “Uncle Drew” opened in theaters, a genuine summer popcorn flick, and Gordon stole the show as the antihero foil to Kyrie Irving’s famous pop-culture creation. Two days later, Gordon re-signed with the Orlando Magic to the tune of $76 million over the next four years. Although Gordon was more than happy to show off his burgeoning comedic talents and the same rim-rocking acrobatics that has made him a must-watch highlight reel, he also had to reckon with his overnight swell in popularity.
“[I got] a little bit [of blowback], people are like: ‘Man, I don’t really like AG no more after being Casper,’” Gordon laughed as he explained the reaction to his stint as a villainous heel. “Who doesn’t like him anymore?” And then shortly after: “I worried that the casting thing was gonna mess with the contracts — but my agent assured me it wasn’t going to do nothing, plus it ended up looking good.”
Now that his fifth NBA season lurks just around the corner, the Magic’s freshly-minted franchise cornerstone knows that the fatter paycheck comes with even bigger responsibilities — a task Gordon is aiming to meet head-on.
“It’s like enlightenment,” Gordon said to Basketball Insiders. “So you get the money, you got the weight on your shoulders, you hear the contract, you sign your contract, you take that weight off. But then you wait two weeks and then you gotta pick that weight back up and put it back on your shoulders so you can come and keep growing with the Magic.
“And win with the Magic and take what they’ve given you and make sure everyone knows why you got that.”
For a middle-of-the-road team like Orlando, offering up a near max contract is nothing to scoff at — but the Magic never hesitated. Gordon, 23, has long toed the line of a potential breakout but he hasn’t quite made that all-important leap just yet. Since Gordon was drafted in 2014, however, his numbers have steadily improved across the board, topping out with 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and two three-pointers per game last season.
A myriad of minor injuries kept Gordon out for 24 contests in 2017-18, but the overall statistical surge was still enough for Orlando to commit a massive portion of their future to the 6-foot-9 forward.
The significant pay raise comes with the expectation that Gordon will be the linchpin behind Orlando’s first playoff appearance since 2011-12 — a full two years before the high-flying playmaker even entered the league. Thankfully, Gordon won’t be alone in his efforts and the Magic roster features both consistent, reliable veterans and a handful of talented, young pieces too. From Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic to Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba, there’s a chance this will the franchise’s most-talented team top to bottom in some time.
But since games start counting for real in less than a month, Gordon is ready to just get to work.
“Hopefully we just put all the talent on the floor,” Gordon said. “You know, that’s the biggest thing, just putting all our most talented players on the floor at one time and letting that be whatever it is. The NBA is different these days, it’s not a traditional one, two, three, four and five.
“It’s the most versatile people on the floor that can guard different positions and that can do a multitude of things.”
Gordon has always fancied himself in that same vein as well: a player that can guard small forwards effectively, bang in the paint and even step out behind the arc when needed. His conversion rate from three-point range could use an upgrade this season — 33.6 percent in 2017-18 — but he’s clearly begun to make progress on those promising forecasts. Now under the tutelage of Steve Clifford, Gordon is ready to focus his efforts on the defensive end and improve one of the league’s most subpar units.
“Hell yes — definitely, I love that,” Gordon said. “I’ve always welcomed defense, I’ve always stepped up to that challenge, I love it so much. It’s gonna work, just to have a lot of defenders on this team and I’m going to set the tone.”
As of today, Orlando has the roster makeup of a potentially successful team, particularly so in the weaker conference, but they’ll still need somebody to ascend to stardom — that’s why they’re banking on Gordon and his bright future. In his 58 games last season, Gordon recorded at least two steals and one three-pointer on 15 separate occasions and even nailed six from deep in an explosive 40-point, 15-rebound effort in November. So if he’s not there yet, he’s certainly on his way.
While Gordon says Clifford wants him to play stress-free basketball — contributing nightly as a playmaker and distributor to boot — it appears as the veteran will be asked to lead the defensive charge. And according to his new head coach, that’s the only thing holding Gordon back from reaching another level.
“I’ve talked to him about this in detail. I think it starts at the defensive end now for him,” Clifford said recently. “You know, he’s 19 [points] and eight [rebounds] and if he becomes a good individual and team defender with that, then he’s an All-Star caliber player.”
Of course, everybody wants to be an All-Star — and Gordon is no different in that regard — but he’s not letting those lofty aspirations weigh him down heading into the preseason.
“It’s team goals, it really is,” Gordon said. “AG to All-Star sounds nice, but it’s about winning — it’s team goals.”
So after an eventful summer, heavy with those major individual milestones, it’s no surprise that the forward is most interested in the team’s on-court product right now. Between leading the team in scoring, on the defensive end and in the locker room, there’s a full plate in front of Gordon — but he’s not flinching. And while some players might relax after receiving a contract that guarantees their future for nearly half a decade, Gordon wants absolutely no part of that.
“I love to compete, I love playing basketball,” Gordon said. “So, [I] just [want] to get better, push myself, see where my limits are and then just burst through them.”
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