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Assume the Position

The Magic want Aaron Gordon to play small forward. The numbers don’t support this plan, but the science behind Orlando’s freak athlete does.

AP/Ringer illustration
AP/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is How Basketball Works Week. We’ll be looking at the scouts, stats, coaches, and tactical developments that are shaping the game.

During the U.S. men’s national basketball team training camp in Las Vegas over the summer, the select team got its first glimpse of how Gregg Popovich intends to run Team USA once he succeeds Mike Krzyzewski in 2017. Normally at practice, the side that gets the ball first is decided just as it is on the playground: by shooting. Popovich had other ideas. First possession would be determined by whichever smartass on the team paid the most attention in high school chemistry.

What’s the chemical symbol for iron?

“F-E”

What’s the chemical symbol for sodium?

“N-A”

What’s the chemical symbol for silver?

“A-G”

Each practice had a new question, but they all started exactly the same way — with Popovich playing the role of school teacher and U.S. select team member Aaron Gordon playing the role of overeager student.

“Every single time that it was time to play live, our team got the ball,” Gordon told me. “Because I was the one who knew the periodic table of elements.”

Gordon insists he doesn’t know where it came from — science was far from his best subject in school. But science has always been on his side, more so than most athletes in the NBA, if not the world. He stands 6-foot-9, 220 pounds, with a near-7-foot wingspan and a 39-inch maximum vertical jump. He had his first in-game dunk in middle school. During the dunk contest flush that made Gordon famous, he hung in the air for .97 seconds, long enough to jump over a roughly 6-foot-7 dragon in a Magic jersey and put the ball under and over both his legs for a left-handed reverse dunk.

According to data compiled by P3 Applied Sports Science provided to The Ringer, Gordon’s fastest time in his slide agility test (the speed in which he can move laterally 5 yards, change direction, and slide back) was clocked at 2.49, roughly a tenth of a second faster than the average NBA guard’s. He knows what separates him from the rest of the league and isn’t bashful about it. “I’m a world-class athlete,” Gordon said. “My speed, my strength, and my ability to jump [are things] that not a lot of people in this world have.”

Barring injury, his freak athleticism hasn’t yet reached its peak, which is terrifying. Gordon’s physical capabilities resound in his ability to chase a block or throw down a putback even when he mistimes his jump, but they aid him most in the intangible aspects of his player development. His athleticism affords him time and a greater margin for error.

Gordon is entering his third season in the NBA, but he only just turned 21 last month. He is, to borrow a term from Clyde Frazier, a neophyte. His identity on the floor has, to this point, been largely formless. He closed last season looking like the Orlando Magic’s starting power forward for the foreseeable future. Then, a series of progressively strange offseason acquisitions by the Magic front office clouded that future. Magic head coach Frank Vogel has declared Gordon a small forward, precisely the notion talent evaluators wanted to dispel him of before the 2014 NBA draft. “See, he thinks he’s a small forward,” an NBA scout told The Boston Globe. “That’s not what he is.” An NBA executive talking to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman before the draft compared his talents to Kenneth Faried: “I’m not sure this is who Gordon wants to be, but [Faried] is who he needs to be.”

This is what he did to Faried in March:

Of course, that’s an incomplete picture; Gordon made only 30.1 percent of his jump shots last season. Yet, the fragmentary nature of Gordon’s still-developing game is part of what makes him a compelling, modern NBA player. He’s so young, so athletic — why do we have to be so narrow? There is more than one way to play a position, isn’t there? But the pessimism is mounting quickly. Advanced metrics don’t offer a rosy forecast for Gordon, nor does the eye test, really. Welcome to the Great Aaron Gordon Experiment, brought to you by Frank Vogel, who is trying to build a 3 out of an athlete whom modern conventions insist should be a 4.

“I never bought into what people say I can or can’t do, believe me to be, or believe me not to be,” Gordon said. “So to have a head coach that has faith in my ability and faith in my talent, it’s a little bit of a validation. But for me, I validate myself from within, and I play the game the way I know how to play the game. I’m not a position.”

There is some precedence for this kind of positional downshifting. In 2008, then–Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo had toyed with the idea of playing the 7-foot Andrea Bargnani at the 3 alongside Chris Bosh and Jermaine O’Neal at the 4 and 5. In 2013, the Jazz occasionally slotted Paul Millsap at small forward to accommodate the glut of centers they had in Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter. While both of those cases involved trying to fit a square peg in a round hole due to the realities of shoddy roster construction, neither Bargnani nor Millsap were the kind of athletic outlier that would allow them to transcend the customs of the position. Really, the most relevant comparison for Gordon’s transition is Russell Westbrook.

There is a certain standard of decorum that players at each position are expected to uphold, and it has as much to do with the function of the position as it does the aesthetic.

When Westbrook entered the league, he’d only just gotten used to being a person of standard NBA height, let alone a player capable of playing the most technically demanding position in the sport. He didn’t look like a point guard. His reckless, hell-bent steamrolls into the paint were anathema to a position that had always exuded poise and control. His handle was loose and he turned the ball over more than he should have, but his athleticism was irrepressible. And it provided him the cushion to adapt to the intricacies of the position on the job. As it turned out, Westbrook wasn’t revolutionizing the lead guard role; he was very much playing within its confines. But it took a while before the perception of his game caught up to his actual output. It takes a special talent to transcend the hegemony of a position’s expected style.

After this season’s Orlando roster was set and it became clear that Gordon would be sliding down to small forward, Vogel approached him with a few directives, things that, as Gordon said, “a small forward in this league needs to be able to do”: Make sure you can hit 3s, make sure you can attack closeouts, and make sure you can take a few dribbles and shoot over the top of defenders. These are the rudiments of the position.

It’s fair to wonder just how ready Gordon is to step into a full-time perimeter role in today’s landscape. He took 142 3-pointers last season, and all but 13 of them were attempted without a single defender within 4 feet. Teams will continue to ignore him behind the 3-point line until he proves he can hit them at league-average rates. It’s also fair to wonder about Gordon’s dynamism off the dribble from deep; he hardly, if ever, ran the pick-and-roll as a ball handler last season. He attempted (and made) one unassisted 3-pointer last season, but it wasn’t a shot he created himself. He just happened to be camped out in the right corner when a Ryan Hollins garbage-time block flew toward him like a pass along the baseline.

Gordon will have the ball in his hands more this season, a dream come true for a kid who grew up obsessing over Magic Johnson. “I’ve watched so much [of his] film growing up,” Gordon said. “I feel like I know every pass that’s been documented.”

Video evidence over the past two seasons shows he’s comfortable taking the ball up the court, and his ball skills are good for his size, but they aren’t exceptional. His own forays to the rim can best be described as rustic. It’s something he’s confident he can do well, though he’s aware of the skepticism. “I pride myself on ballhandling and I’ll be able to show it this year,” Gordon said. “It’s just with being able to release pressure off Elfrid Payton and our other guards. Orlando’s using me as a big guard, and I’m excited to do that.“

Vogel claimed that he will try to use Gordon in much the same way he deployed Paul George back in Indiana. If that’s something you’re having trouble envisioning, you’re not alone. George is a direct disciple of Kobe Bryant; there is an artful component to the way he dismantles his opponent. Gordon, on the other hand, plays with the crudeness of a young athlete who knows Newtonian physics will almost always work in his favor. At present, Gordon is a notebook sketch that has willed itself off the page; there are traces of what he might be and voids that are undeniable. But in the end, all that you’re left with is one thought: How?

Gordon first visited P3 in Santa Barbara in advance of the 2014 NBA draft combine. As they ran their tests, founder Marcus Elliott, a Harvard-trained physician, found himself surprised by the data. “He was already a really nice athlete, so I don’t want to tell you that we built him into an athlete,” Elliott told me. “[But] he was more of an athlete than I expected him to be, honestly.”

Gordon was as impressive laterally as he was vertically. They found that he had virtually no limitations in his movement skills, which is exceedingly rare in a player Gordon’s size. “We have a few of those guys, [and] they’re all very successful in the NBA,” Elliott said. “We haven’t assessed any of these big guys that have amazing movement skills that haven’t been really successful in the NBA. And what that says to me is, if you’re a big man and you’re an amazing mover in all planes, you can have a career in the NBA, regardless of your skill set.”

Elliott and his staff of biomechanical engineers monitor what they call jump diversity, the ability to jump in lots of different environments very successfully, whether that means jumping very high or very quickly, jumping out in space, or jumping in tight confines. “It’s unusual to have a guy that has as much jump diversity as Aaron,” Elliott said.

It’s an impressive physical gift that manifests itself even in mundane situations. Here, against the Sixers in February, Gordon takes the ball coast to coast and botches an easy basket, but jumps three additional times in the span of two seconds around a crowd of defenders to follow his own miss.

“In his jump movements, the amount of force he creates is consistently at least a standard deviation above the norm,” Elliott said. “He creates a ton of what we call concentric force. That’s like when his muscles are stretched and they need to shorten.” Like a rubber band, Gordon clarified.

As you’d expect, Gordon’s problem was never his ability to jump; Elliott was more concerned about how he was landing. During their predraft testing, Elliott noticed some asymmetry in his landing mechanics. He was overloading his left side. In their initial report of Gordon, under “Needs Improvement” was his ground interaction, and how his landings affected him at the foot and ankle level. They let Gordon know, but he was dubious. I can fucking hit my head on the rim, Gordon thought. Don’t talk to me about a mechanics problem.

Two weeks into his rookie season, he had a stress fracture in his left foot.

“There’s this hidden code behind sports that people haven’t really exposed before,” Elliott said. “If you understand the code, a lot of the outcomes don’t surprise you. They’ve telegraphed themselves to you.”

Gordon returned to the court in mid-January of 2015, and played 47 games total in his rookie campaign. The week the season ended, he was back in Santa Barbara. He was the first NBA player the P3 staff worked out that offseason.

“When all arrows were pointing towards [the mechanical issues we’d identified], I think — he already believed in what we did, but it gave him a lot more belief,” Elliott said. “It gave him a reality check on how fragile and fickle an NBA career is, and how quickly things can go south on you. And so he comes back, he has a great offseason with us. He almost completely normalizes his mechanics on [his landing], so the mechanics that were really worrisome are not worrisome now.”

Much of my conversation with Elliott revolved around Gordon’s athleticism as an outlier for a big man, but when I note that Gordon was being repositioned, the tenor of our conversation didn’t change much at all. Gordon is an awe-inspiring athlete, regardless of position, and much of his tests reflect his capacity to play a more laterally-oriented game. “When we think about perimeter play, we mostly think about ability to create lateral force, ability to defend on the perimeter, to move in lateral planes in short movements,” Elliott said. “And it’s pretty much impossible to be a great perimeter defender unless you can create significant lateral force. And we have pretty much zero examples of guys who are amazing perimeter defenders but can’t create a lot of force.

“At P3 we have learned, unequivocally, that vertical and lateral movement are very separate systems, and that knowing that an athlete can jump high doesn’t predict how well he will move laterally and vice versa. A.G., it turns out, is very good at both.”

Gordon was wholly capable of switching on screens and defending out at the 3-point line in his first two seasons; having to defend the opposing team’s best wing scorer this year won’t be anything new to him. He not only has the size advantage, but for the most part, his speed also allows him to maintain positioning. “The most important thing to keep track of with smaller players is when they come off of down screens or pin-downs, or flare screens,” Gordon said. “Smaller players are good at getting low and getting around screens. As a bigger defender, I just need to get lower, and get my hips lower and my shoulders lower than the screener’s hips. And if I do that, then I can stay with the guards, and it’s just going to be a rough night for them.”

For being 6-foot-9, Gordon is exceptional at using his hips to generate lateral force. His hip abduction velocity (which correlates with lateral speed) approaches the 80th percentile for all NBA athletes, according to P3 data. But perhaps most astonishing is Gordon’s performance in P3’s open-stimulus-response test, where an athlete stands in a set, ready position and responds to a ball being dropped to the left or right of him by moving as quickly as he can 1 meter in the direction of the ball. The results showed that Gordon generates more lateral force in the stimulus-response test than in a 1-meter slide in a premeditated direction. That is to say: Gordon is quicker and more explosive when he has no idea which direction he has to react to than when he does know.

“It’s a very good sign for defenders,” Elliott said.

In 2014, Gordon read about an impossible challenge that Elliott had done with Atlanta Hawks forward Kyle Korver. Misogi, it was called. Though it takes its name from the classic Shintoist concept of purifying the body through ritualistic bathing, their idea of misogi was a once-a-year challenge that tested the body’s limits. Gordon read about how Korver was talked into paddleboarding 25 miles across open water from the Channel Islands to Santa Barbara. It was an exhaustive, nine-hour excursion. Elliott and Korver had planned another one for the 2014 offseason. It was a 5K run. Underwater. While carrying rocks that weighed up to 85 pounds.

“I want in,” Gordon told Elliott.

Unfortunately, their schedules misaligned, and Gordon wasn’t able to join. Instead, Aaron and his brother, Drew, took the concept and brought it home; they’d started carrying their dumbbells into pools. “He has a growth mind-set,” Elliott said. “He always wants to get better, he wants to do more. He wants to keep evolving.”

Elliott hopes to bring Gordon along for a misogi experience in the upcoming offseason, though he hasn’t figured out the specifics yet. “Before the season’s over, I’m going to tell him what it’s going to be, and we’ll show up and do something crazy hard together,” Elliott said. “In two weeks, I’m going to try to go run 47 miles in the Grand Canyon, and I’m not a runner. It’s going to destroy me. I wouldn’t have him do that. With these guys whose bodies are worth more than mine, you gotta be careful about the challenges. It can’t break them, but they need to be crazy hard.”

The point of this extreme adaptation of misogi is to create a personalized Mission: Impossible once a year, to push the body and mind to their absolute brink. That feeling, in success or failure, is its own kind of purification. Gordon has been pushing himself for most of his life.

He wasn’t so much into science, but there was one class he took at Archbishop Mitty that sticks with him to this day. It was called the “Facade of Perfection,” and I checked with him twice to confirm that it was a real thing. “Mitty offered a lot of different classes that aren’t normally or typically offered in a state school,” Gordon explained.

“It was discrediting the illusion of perfection,” he continued. “You try to do things over and over and over to become perfect, and knowing that there’s no such thing as perfection — the only perfection that there is is in your imagination. So when you alleviate the flaws in your own imagination, that’s when you become perfect.”

This is the player that the Magic are investing in. They’re banking on character, work ethic, and, yeah, world-class athleticism playing as big a role in shaping Gordon’s future as the jumbled word cloud of skills that most people see him as. In the vastness of the modern NBA, we all like to think we’re open-minded about how the game can be played. The Aaron Gordon Experiment, should the hypotheses check out, could find alternate ways of challenging our already liberal view of positionality.

Gordon isn’t anyone’s image of an ideal small forward. He doesn’t have to be.