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

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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.”