Orlando Magic still rely on Aaron Gordon’s ascendance

Mar 31, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) dunks the ball during the first half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 31, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) dunks the ball during the first half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

Aaron Gordon is still the curiosity and the player with the most potential on the Orlando Magic. When he ascends, the Magic ascend with him.

117. 18. 116. 38. Final

Elfrid Payton got the ball and turned up court as the options began to present themselves in a 3-on-2 fast break. Terrence Ross was to his right, Jodie Meeks was to his left. But Elfrid Payton was patient, as he normally is and could see the storm clouds brewing behind Terrence Ross.

Ross did not quite peel to the corner as quickly as he should have, but the seas did part as Payton fed the ball to the trailing Aaron Gordon.

Then with that trademark athleticism, Gordon rose. Up and over Marcus Smart, a bystander in a poster that did not seem possible. Gordon can indeed leap point guards in a single bound.

This was Gordon at his most confident. Zooming past everyone to the rim like he needed to get there and like no one could stop him. Stopping on a dime to pull up for a suddenly confident jumper, it hitting the net with that delightful thwack.

There have been precious few of these moments where Gordon’s scoring takes over a game. It is when his athleticism seems to find its most usefulness. He would help try to lock down and contain Isaiah Thomas on one end — someone with his size should not have as much success against Thomas’ speed, but yet Gordon slowed him down plenty — and then he would have the size and speed to beat any matchup.

Gordon tallied his third 30-point game this season, a sign of his promise and his supreme talent. Gordon has shown plenty of flashes of all of this in his first three years in the NBA. He has put it together seemingly more this year.

And it is in these moments where Gordon’s ascendance could not be any more important. He is the Orlando Magic’s closest thing to a star, able to beat a team in multiple ways advantage of an matchup.

Yet there was always something stunting his growth. Stunting the Magic’s growth.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

His rookie year it was the foot fracture that knocked him out of 50-plus games. His sophomore year it was the jaw injury that knocked him out of the first 20-or-so games. This year, it was probably the Magic’s roster construction that pushed him to the small forward.

Since the All-Star Break, it is abundantly clear Gordon is a power forward — or whatever passes for one these days. He is averaging a much more productive 15.6 points per game, 5.6 rebounds per game and 49.5 percent shooting. He has looked more like the Gordon everyone always imagined, if not on a consistent basis.

For sure, Gordon still has his forays from the perimeter and still lines up outside the 3-point line. His 3-point field goal attempts per game have greatly decreased since the All-Star Break and his move back to power forward. But he is more capable of driving past slower power forwards like Jonas Jerebko.

And Gordon’s athleticism and leaping ability help him if he misses. His second leap is so fast he is able to get to the boards quicker than centers and the forward he just beat. This is where Gordon is at home, using his skills to their best.

The final act of this Magic season has been about, to some extent, building hope after a disappointing season.

Orlando has found a style that seems to suit the team and the era better. The Magic are merely 6-12 since the All-Star Break. That is a 27-win pace. There are clearly still things the Magic need. Like a central pivot to turn on.

All of the team’s problems still come back to that fundamental issue — the Magic need their star. Or someone they can rely on to step up into that role every night. Right now, it can be someone different every night.

Friday night, it was Gordon’s turn. In the long run, Gordon is the most likely candidate to do so if he can put all the pieces together. Something is unlocked within the Magic when he gets things going like this. His star turns elevate the team to another level.

At a certain point, it becomes about trusting Gordon enough to play the offense through him. And that is the point Gordon is not at yet. Or there is not the confidence he can do it.

Since the All-Star Break, Gordon is averaging 12.1 field goal attempts per game. He had a 19.8 percent usage rate before the break and 20.5 percent after. The new offense has given Gordon more opportunity. Opportunity he has taken advantage of.

Throughout Friday’s game against the Boston Celtics, the Magic were better when they were working to get Gordon opportunity. He had a 29.8 percent usage rate in a largely efficient game. It was a case where Gordon had the hot hand and the team found a way to feed him.

His 20-point first quarter was sublime. Yet, after getting 10 more in the third quarter, the team went away from Gordon. In the fourth quarter, Gordon missed all three of his shots. The offense shifted toward Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier, perhaps players coach Frank Vogel trusts a bit more at the moment to close games. Payton too did his thing to bring the Magic nearer to the finish line.

Gordon still has a lot of growth to go. His 30-point games have been flashes in the pan this season. So too might this game — played when he was a game-time decision because of a shoulder injury.

There is still plenty of room for Gordon to grow. And he must grow for the Magic to succeed.

Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic are nice players. They have carried a heavy burden for the Magic for several years. And there are moments where they too are capable. But they are not the long-term answers. Not like Aaron Gordon can be.

That might be too much pressure to put on him. Then again, it is year three and he is eligible for an extension this summer. The question of his value will be in sharper focus. Games like this will be a sign of what he can be. And what the Magic hope he can be.

Next: Grades: Boston Celtics 117, Orlando Magic 116

Maybe what the Magic need him to be in addition to whatever Draft pick is to come in this supposedly loaded Draft.