Aaron Gordon Has Adapted His Game To Become The Best Version Of Himself For The Nuggets

Late in the third quarter of the Denver Nuggets’ exhilarating Christmas Day victory against the Phoenix Suns, Aaron Gordon flicked the ball to his big man, Nikola Jokic, in the post. Gordon’s defender, Torrey Craig, lunged for a deflection and momentary dig inside. As soon as Craig committed himself, Gordon made a beeline to the rim. Jokic lofted a dime over his noggin and Gordon slammed home a dunk before Landry Shamet could rotate to help.

The dunk was Gordon’s fifth of the game on a night he ended with seven total, the last of which was a pogostick poster over — err, through — Shamet to help cement the win. After two-plus months, the former Arizona Wildcat is enjoying a career-best campaign for the 22-12 Nuggets. He’s averaging 17.5 points and 6.5 rebounds on 66.9 percent true shooting and is 30th in Estimated Plus-Minus (plus-3.2) in the league.

Trailing only Giannis Antetokounmpo (101) and Evan Mobley (87), he is tied for third league-wide in dunks with 85. Nearly 30 percent of his made baskets are rim-rocking jams, by far the loftiest rate of his nine-year NBA tenure. Last season, he set a career-high with 130 dunks in 75 games. At his current pace, he’ll shatter that by the All-Star Break.

When Denver acquired Gordon two seasons ago, it clearly had a vision to maximize his offensive exploits alongside Jokic and help curtail some of the habits hamstringing his impact. As a result, 2021-22 and 2022-23 have been the finest years of the 6’8 wing’s career.

The gigantic boost in context between Orlando and Denver is not the sole reason behind Gordon’s upswing. He deserves considerable credit for reshaping his approach and fully leaning into the merits of his skill-set. Throughout much of his time with the Orlando Magic, Gordon was afforded the autonomy to explore the depths of his creation potential. He ran pick-and-rolls, spent substantial time handling the rock, launched jumpers off the bounce all over the floor, and tested the waters as a daring playmaker.

That freedom instilled and amplified some poor inclinations in him. He didn’t apply his physical gifts as a slasher nearly anywhere as often as he should’ve and fell in love with the allure of shiny pull-up jumpers. During his 6.5 seasons in Orlando, he never eclipsed league average true shooting in a given season and ended his time there at 53.1 percent, 13.8 points lower than this year’s mark.

Some of that dissonance stems from the brilliance of Jokic, with whom Gordon seemed to fashion chemistry almost immediately upon his arrival. That, however, is not all of it. Gordon is a different player now. He’s better, independent of the team name splayed across his chest.

According to Cleaning The Glass, a career-high 63 percent of his shots are at the rim this season (100th percentile among forwards), where he’s shooting 76 percent around the cup (94th percentile). The former is 10 points higher than his previous best of 53 percent in 2014-15. He’s trimmed down those midrange pull-ups that previously tanked his efficiency and replaced them with paint production instead. His .411 free-throw rate is well above the .274 number he amassed his first eight seasons. His .240 three-point rate is the second-lowest of his career. A smattering of data points indicate renewed vigor in Gordon’s scoring ethos.

By no means have the Nuggets completely stripped him of creation chances, either. They’re particularly fond of letting him boogie from the wings in early offense or outmuscle mismatches inside. Gordon affirms their confidence because he’s using those possessions much more effectively, living at the rim like the slasher he is and eschewing the Chris Paul cosplays as a midrange aficionado.

He’s cognizant of the advantage his strength, flexibility, and quick leaping ability present him against most matchups. Even if he can’t convert the initial look, there’s a decent chance he’s dislodged his defender for space on a putback. If that doesn’t happen, he might still hop off the ground before them and follow it up, too. His athleticism is a major asset on the interior.

According to PBPStats, 37.7 percent of his field goal attempts are self-created (defined as a touch lasting at least two seconds before a shot) this year, the second-lowest rate of his career. He’s posting the best effective field goal percentage of his career on those shots at 53.7 percent. What’s more is 64.5 percent of his self-created attempts are coming within 10 feet of the hoop, the second-highest mark of his career. To put it a more succinctly, Gordon’s beneficial environment is far from the lone factor in his progression. He’s refined his playstyle to best suit his athletic talents and maximize all that Denver offers him.

Primarily, this bountiful Rocky Mountain situation offers him the place to share the hardwood with Jokic. Just 61 of his 869 minutes this year have come without the back-to-back league MVP. The Nuggets’ net rating is plus-12.1 with an offensive rating of 125 when they’re together. From lobs out of inverted ball-screens to deft entry passes on duck-ins or post-ups, they enjoy wide-ranging synergy. Gordon often floats around the dunker spot when Jokic is piloting the action to take advantage of his ethereal interior passing.

Not only does Gordon lurk near the baseline because of his finishing prowess, he’s also quite the accomplished custodian to clean up misses. His 9.1 percent offensive rebounding rate is a career-high and ranks in the 97th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass. He is fearless, ferocious, and unrelenting as a finisher and rebounder. Seven-footers, rangy rim protectors, and a sea of limbs do not deter him. Whether it’s a cut or board, he keenly identifies space for scoring opportunities. He’s an unorthodox ball hawk whose instincts cater toward offensive functionality.

Like so many other mid-career breakouts, Gordon’s flourishment should be a testament to the importance of context and patience for players. When one-and-done freshmen enter the NBA, they are miles away from their prime — Gordon joined the Magic at 19 and just turned 27 in September. This is squarely his prime. His play reflects that. Those formative years in Orlando were not the lone chapters of his story, nor did his responsibilities align with his capabilities.

Last season, Gordon was very good. He feasted at the rim, was a lively point-of-attack defender, and notched a then-career-best 60 percent true shooting. Some of the bewildering offensive tendencies were still prominent and his strides felt more closely tied to improved personnel than internal adaptation, although both existed. Now, he’s further tailored his game to blossom as the optimal version of himself, entirely merging individual growth and the rewards of the 2021 trade that brought him to Denver.