Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon finds liftoff in the dirty work

It is easy to get enamored with Aaron Gordon's athleticism. But the Orlando Magic forward is finding success staying grounded in the work. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
It is easy to get enamored with Aaron Gordon's athleticism. But the Orlando Magic forward is finding success staying grounded in the work. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Aaron Gordon has had a rough season this year. Finally healthy, the Orlando Magic forward is starting to find his game and take off through the gritty work.

120. 125. Final. 130. 38

The most exciting thing in the Orlando Magic offense at times is Aaron Gordon with a free run to the basket. Especially if he has a half-court of the run-up to get there.

Aaron Gordon certainly wanted to put on a bit of a show in his first opportunity for a real dunk after his controversial Dunk Contest loss. So there he went, casually putting a 360 dunk on the crowd at State Farm Arena. The Magic’s bench erupted with energy and excitement.

It was just two points like no other. But undoubtedly you have seen it over and over again in highlights from Wednesday’s 130-120 win over the Atlanta Hawks.

With Gordon, it is the dunks that are always the highlights. This is where his athleticism goes on display in its most beautiful and artistic form. This is where he might make his money in endorsements and notoriety.

As he scored 25 points in the win Wednesday, this is the play everyone will likely play over and over again.

But it is hardly the play that defined Gordon’s game. It is hardly the play that defined Gordon’s recent stretch through the NBA. A stretch that has seen him regain the potential and hopes that everyone had for him at the beginning of the season.

Gordon’s real value comes not from his ability to fly through the air. It comes from how he uses his athleticism to do the dirty work — grabbing offensive rebounds, defending and protecting the rim and moving the ball off his drives.

Gordon’s real value comes from the muck and the grime around and beneath the basket. It is in using his athleticism to solidify himself here that he has started to soar statistically again. It is here that Gordon has discovered something that has started to turn his production around.

The most important play from Gordon in the Magic’s win Wednesday was not that 360 dunk. It was his play to block a shot that led to a series of hustle plays that helped the Magic gain some separation in the third quarter.

That was one of three blocks for Gordon in the game. Another came late in the fourth quarter when he caught John Collins trying to go up for a layup with the wrong hand. That exposed him to Gordon and his supreme athleticism. Just like Caris LeVert learned the hard way to be on the lookout for Aaron Gordon in Monday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets.

Refocusing on his defense and finding ways to get into the gaps of the offense have helped Gordon tremendously. The change in his game in recent weeks has been a revolution of everything in his approach.

In his last 10 games, Gordon is averaging 19.9 points per game, 9.0 rebounds per game and 5.0 assists per game. He is shooting 48.3 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. He is adding 2.2 “stocks” per game for good measure.

Gordon’s change has come with his commitment back to that gritty play. Not just defensively but in doing a good job attacking the offensive glass. He has averaged 2.3 offensive rebounds per game in his last 10 games (up from his 1.8 season average).

That has put Gordon in better position to get putbacks. Scoring these grimy points is key to supplementing the rest of Gordon’s game. More important it fits his skill set best.

Attacking the offensive glass is an easy way for Gordon to get into the lane and use his athleticism to get easy points. Accumulating these “junk” points helps build confidence and forces the defense to account for him more.

It has been a rough season for Gordon. He has struggled to put all the elements of his game together and take the expected leap for someone who is in their early 20s.

His season averages are 14.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game with a 32.0-percent 3-point field goal percentage. Gordon is playing far above his mean for the 2020 season in his last 10 games.

This is close to where fans imagined Gordon would grow to at the beginning of the season, reaching a near All-Star level. With the games he has poured in this week — 27 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists against the Nets on Monday and 20-plus points in four of his last five games — it is hard to argue against that.

Healthy has had a big part of that. He has seemingly dealt with injuries since early in training camp. He has not been able to get himself right and it has shown in his play. He has not been able to access all that athleticism to his advantage.

Now he looks healthy and playing at full strength for the first time all season.

The key for Gordon has always been attacking quickly and decisively. The longer he waits and the longer he dribbles on the ball the less efficient his shot will be. This year, he is scoring 0.73 points per possession on isolations and 0.88 points per possession on post-ups. He was at 0.79 points per possession on isolations and 0.84 points per possession on post-ups last year.

Neither are fantastic numbers. He is not good at these isolation-type plays where he is left one on one. Where he is most successful is on cuts and getting into the gaps of a defense like this. That is what opens up the rest of his game.

Gordon’s athleticism can overwhelm any conversation people have about him. It is his one truly elite skill. But deploying that athleticism has proved difficult.

Gordon does not fit quite neatly into the box of a typical offense. He is still working to develop and refine his skills. And so his success is still largely dependent on that athleticism.

But it is clearly not dependent on his soaring through the air or his dunking ability. That is window dressing for his game. His best games come when he uses his athleticism to make gritty plays and fill in gaps. This is how Gordon can make his most immediate and important impact.

Next. Grades: Orlando Magic 130, Atlanta Hawks 120. dark

The rest of his game grows out from there. And right now, Gordon is reaping the dividends of it all.