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Aaron Gordon is far and away the most paradoxical player of this year’s Arizona team.
He is the darling of ESPN’s highlight reel yet he is nationally panned for his inability to convert from the free-throw line. He has been both the catalyst for many of Arizona’s most dazzling victories and a liability for their two losses.
It would be far simpler to blame the latter on Brandon Ashley’s untimely, season-ending injury… far too simple. The fact is, Ashley on the sidelines coincides with the fact that three of Arizona’s other starters are in season slumps… one of whom is Gordon.
It would be both too easy to and too negligent not to begin with Gordon’s performance from the free-throw line. Often thought of as “gimme” points, the free-throw line is the realm from which Gordon should be at his most punishing. Gordon is dominant on the boards and intense on defense, both of which put the ball in his hands often and allow him to be fouled often.
However, his inability to make free throws potentially renders him more of an asset to his opponents in close games. This has never been more evident than in the USC game, in which the Trojans elected to apply the “hack-a-Shaq” mentality to Gordon—in short, fouling the weakest free-throw shooter in an attempt to recoup possession. Fortunately for the Wildcats, this is illegal in college play.
It is widely apparent that Gordon’s free-throw struggles are mental. His misses are widely varied in nature, and it is nearly impossible to believe that that is either a reflection of a lack of discipline on his part or a reflection of Sean Miller’s negligence as a coach. Miller has referenced Gordon’s free-throw percentage in the games in which it has been particularly abysmal, or costly (even victories)—the Utah game, in which Gordon pulled down twelve rebounds but was four-for-ten from the free-throw line, the UCLA game, in which Gordon missed free throws at particularly critical junctures, or most injuriously, the second ASU game, in which Gordon was 3-for-8 from the free-throw line and the Wildcats lost by three in double-overtime.
In the victories in which Gordon performed poorly from the line, he was bolstered by a teammate having a standout game, however, it should not come to that. For a player who expects to stand out at the next level of basketball—the highest level of basketball—it should simply not come to that.
The fact is, for all Gordon’s versatility and raw athleticism, he is young. For whatever reason, the free-throw line has mind-checked him, and it has seeped into other areas of his game. He has been stymied from the field of late, and rather than step up in the face of his team’s recent hardship, he has allowed himself to fade. This is not an indictment of him as a player; rather, it is a call for him to give himself another year to prepare mentally for the challenges that will await him in the NBA.
Yes, Gordon’s dunks are breathtaking. His ability to snag a rebound amid a cluster of other players is an asset to any team. His capability—not his overall delivery, but his ability to do so under certain circumstances—to shoot to the point where he can take over a game exists. In order to do himself justice, however, he would benefit fully from another year under Miller’s tutelage. He should develop his outside shot and his ball-handling (as anyone who has ever screamed at the TV, “Give it up!” when Gordon handles the ball in the back-court can attest to), and he should take the time to figure out whatever mental block precludes him from a respectable showing at the free-throw line.
I hope to see Gordon in the NBA someday. Someday, but not next year.