Aaron Gordon needed the Nuggets as much as they needed him

The rosters at the 2013 McDonald’s All-American Game were headlined by four combo forwards lined up at the top of the class recruiting rankings. Each player had a unique blend of skills they put on display during practice scrimmages at Attack Athletics on the West Side of Chicago.

Andrew Wiggins was the Canadian mystery man being whispered about as potentially the best prospect since LeBron James after a standout performance at Nike Peach Jam. He was a tall, long, and lean wing bursting with quick-twitch athleticism, but was still learning how to use his physical gifts. Jabari Parker was the Chicagoan coming off four straight state championships at Simeon Academy. He was a massive forward with the offensive polish of an NBA veteran, but his slow feet and heavy legs were evident against top competition. Julius Randle was the Dallas native with broad shoulders and a powerful frame who was skilled enough to handle and pass the ball in the open floor. Randle was the headliner of a Kentucky recruiting class that included a record six McDonald’s All-Americans.

Then there was Aaron Gordon, the No. 4 overall prospect out of San Jose. When I arrived at the event, the only thing I knew about him was that he was the younger brother of Drew Gordon, a former top-30 recruit who spent two years at UCLA before transferring to New Mexico. Aaron was just as big as his brother, but it was immediately clear he was the family member blessed with elite athleticism.

I was thinking about Gordon at those first practice sessions for the McDonald’s All-American Game during Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals. Ten years later, Gordon has gone from a toolsy project to a perfectly-tuned piece in the rollicking machine that is the Denver Nuggets. For the first six years of his NBA career with the Orlando Magic, it felt like Gordon was a player who didn’t know who he was or what he wanted to be. In Denver, he’s found the both the right home and the right role, all made possible by a pairing with the ideal superstar to help unlock his talents.

Gordon was a menace on both ends as the Nuggets soared to a 104-93 victory in Game 1. On offense, he sprinted down the floor with jarring speed for a four, and bludgeoned smaller defenders with his strength. He also took on the toughest defensive assignment by checking Jimmy Butler and holding him to just 13 points, in addition to helping Denver lock down the paint.

“I love to play with him. I love to play with dominant big men,” Nikola Jokic said of Gordon after the game. “The best thing he’s doing is accepting his role, and he’s done a great job of that.”

The tools that made Gordon a five-star recruit coming out of high school — that burly frame, boundless leaping ability, and 7-foot wingspan — are still his best assets as a pro. He could have turned into anything in the NBA — and for a while that felt like his biggest problem. Now in the best possible place, next to the best possible star, Gordon is growing into the two-way wrecking ball he was always destined to be on the sport’s biggest stage.

Pac-12 Basketball Tournament - Quarterfinals - Utah v Arizona

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Gordon sat between his two parents during media day at the McDonald’s All-American Game with a few hats spread out in front of him. He picked up the one from Arizona and put it on his head, giving the Wildcats the final piece for one of the country’s best rosters.

Gordon’s Arizona team had five NBA players in the rotation. They started the season 21-0, won the Pac-12 regular season title, and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their run ended in heartbreak on the doorstep of the Final Four when they lost to Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker’s Wisconsin team in overtime of the Elite Eight.

The scouting reports on Gordon entering the NBA Draft painted him as he was: an athletic specimen who needed to improve his skill level and figure out his role. He dunked everything inside (54 dunks in his freshman season), but didn’t have the handle to consistently create his own shot. His jump shot was a huge question mark despite hitting a solid 35.6 percent from deep, because he barely attempted over one triple per game and only hit 44 percent of his free throws. Gordon’s potential was sky-high defensively, but he was still figuring out his technique on the perimeter and his discipline inside.

The league Gordon was entering in the 2014 NBA Draft was not the same league as today, not even close. One example: in 2014, the Houston Rockets led the league in three-point attempts per game at 26.6. That would have finished dead-last in the NBA this season 10 years later. The questions asked about Gordon at the time — Was he a three or a four? Could he succeed without a reliable three-point shot? — were of a product of the NBA he was coming into, not the league he’d be playing in when he reached his prime.

The recruiting rankings mostly held serve when the night came for the 2014 NBA Draft. Wiggins went No. 1, Parker went No. 2, Gordon went No. 4, and Randle went No. 7. Also in that draft was Joel Embiid, who wasn’t eligible to play in the McDonald’s Game but quickly proved himself as the best prospect in the class despite serious injury concerns.

Gordon came to an Orlando Magic team still fighting its way out of the Dwight Howard trade. Orlando had 22-year-old Victor Oladipo, 22-year-old Tobias Harris, 24-year-old Nikola Vucevic, 20-year-old Efrid Payton, and now 19-year-old Aaron Gordon. It probably should not be a surprise that Orlando didn’t make the playoffs during Gordon’s four-year rookie contract.

Orlando Magic vs. Chicago Bulls

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Gordon fractured a bone in his foot that cost him 32 games in the middle of his rookie season with Orlando. He started his next season as the Magic’s sixth man, but moved into the starting lineup when the team traded Harris to the Detroit Pistons at the deadline for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova.

More than anything, Gordon was known for competing in the dunk contest. He and Zach LaVine put on one of the greatest shows in the history of the contest in 2015. There was Gordon, jumping over the Magic’s 6-foot mascot, putting the ball under both of his legs, and dunking. LaVine eventually prevailed, but Gordon’s absurd bounce for a player in a 230+ pound frame only cemented how tantalizing his talent was.

Gordon started to show he could be something in the NBA, but it was hard to tell what exactly that was. He was scoring in double-figures, making plays above the rim on both ends of the floor, and slowly improving as an outside shooter. He also was trying to become a one-on-one scorer, but the Magic’s junky spacing didn’t do him any favors. Gordon spent a lot of time playing the three next to two big men after the Magic signed Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka in free agency while still building the team around Vucevic.

Writing at ESPN, Zach Lowe summed up the dilemma of Gordon’s game like this in 2018:

Gordon has always been most effective when he channels his inner Draymond Green: defend like hell across every position, set screens, pop 3s, and spray passes when defenses collapse on his rim runs. He doesn’t seem to have much interest in being that player.

Then again, the Magic have not provided him with an environment to grow into that kind of player.

The rosters changed in Orlando over the years. The franchise made a couple playoff appearances, both times losing in the first round in five games. Gordon lost another dunk contest, and recorded a rap song about it. He had a lucrative long-term contract, but it still felt like he wasn’t maximizing his talent.

Finally, the Magic decided to blow it up. On trade deadline day in 2021, Orlando traded Vucevic to the Bulls for two first round picks, Gordon to the Nuggets for one future first, and Evan Fournier to the Celtics for a couple of second rounders. Gordon would be Denver’s replacement for Jerami Grant, who left the team in free agency after a breakout playoff run in the bubble as the Nuggets reached the conference finals.

We gave the trade an A- grade for the Nuggets, writing “The 25-year-old forward never fully capitalized on his potential within a crowded Orlando front court, but his two-way versatility makes him a nice fit next to Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr.”

2023 NBA Finals - Miami Heat v Denver Nuggets

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It was immediately evident that trading for Gordon was a genius move by the Nuggets’ front office. Denver won its first seven games with Gordon in the lineup and was starting to look like a real championship contender out West.

Then Jamal Murray tore his ACL. Murray would miss the playoffs, and the entirety of the next season. Jokic would win back-to-back MVPs, but the Nuggets didn’t have a chance to make real noise without their top shot-creator. Being a Nuggets fan became an exercise in patience.

It finally all came together for Denver this year. Jokic continued to play at an MVP level even if he finished second to Joel Embiid for the award. Murray returned and gave the Nuggets the shot-creation and shot-making element they were missing. Michael Porter Jr. regained top form after three back surgeries, giving the team a 6’10 sniper on the wing. The defense was bolstered by two brilliant offseason moves: trading for Kentavious Caldwell Pope and signing Bruce Brown in free agency.

Gordon filled in the cracks. The days of him trying to cook off the dribble were over: next to Jokic, Gordon could lean into his ability as a cutter and play-finisher with the best player in the world setting up easy baskets for him. Gordon’s stout interior defense matched perfectly with Jokic’s gravity-challenged style: when Jokic played at the level of the ball screen defensively, Gordon could clean up plays as a rim protector behind him. Gordon even hit 34.7 percent from three this year, matching his career best, even if his volume remained low.

The Nuggets had all the pieces, and they’ve proved it during this playoff run.

There are a couple things I remember about Gordon from those early practice sessions at the McDonald’s Game. One: he was really fast. Wiggins was supposed to be generational athlete in that group, but Gordon could run and jump right with him. He was also super strong. Randle was more of a brute force in those settings, but Gordon could absorb contact at the rim on both ends, rebound through traffic, and generally move bodies by shoving his way into position.

I also remember that Gordon had basically no avenue for scoring against a set defense. That was Jabari Parker’s domain, but two ACL tears in three years sucked the life out of his career. Today, Gordon can set a bone-crushing screen, he can sprint the floor in transition and seal a smaller defender with great post position, and he can play bully ball with a defender on his back. It was all on display to start the NBA Finals.

The athletic tools that made Gordon a top-five recruit gave him so many potential outcomes when he hit his prime in the NBA. He could have been a Kawhi Leonard-like primary scoring option on the wing. He could have been a Draymond Green type who defended everyone, kept the ball moving as a passer, and wasn’t relied on to carry the scoring load. He could have been a straight 3-and-D player if his shooting developed.

Instead, Gordon’s evolution this year reminds me a bit of what Wiggins became to the Warriors last season. Like his fellow McDonald’s classmate, Gordon is not the top or even second-best scoring option on his team. He’s not a true floor spacer, either. Instead, Gordon like Wiggins before him channeled those intrinsic athletic gifts to do all the little things it takes to win: rebounding, quick ball movement, supplemental rim protection, and a big dash of athletic punch to flush home two points with a dunk whenever he’s near the basket. He carries his biggest load defensively, and has taken on almost every assignment in the league.

It’s been a long, winding journey for Gordon to find who he is supposed to be. It was never guaranteed to happen — and maybe it wouldn’t have if the Nuggets didn’t correctly identify him as their missing piece.

The Nuggets wouldn’t be here, thriving in the NBA Finals, without him.

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