Denver Nuggets: The remarkable rise of Aaron Gordon

Since the day he joined the Denver Nuggets, Aaron Gordon has transformed himself into a completely different player.

During his time in Orlando, Gordon struggled with his overall development thanks to inefficient shooting tendencies and untapped potential. That all changed when the walking dunk package found himself in Denver following the 2020-21 NBA trade deadline.

This season, the 27-year-old forward has established himself as one of the best two-way players in the association.

Playing the best basketball of his career, Gordon is averaging an impressive 16.8 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game on an uber-efficient 57.7 percent clip from the field. He is also nailing a career-high 38.8 percent of his 3-pointers.

Known largely for his freak athleticism and ability to finish — and often detonate — at the rim, Gordon has quickly emerged as an elite floor spacer for the Nuggets.

However, the secret to Gordon’s success lies beyond the numbers. His approach to the sport has matured into a higher concentration of off-ball movement and quality shot selection.

Gordon often maximizes his dynamic movement with a heavy dose of backdoor cuts and movement off of pindown action. This consistently creates open looks at the basket, further aided by back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic and his sublime court vision.

When Jokic has the ball in his hands, Gordon unleashes the most dangerous version of himself.

In a Joker post-up situation, Gordon often surveys the paint and patiently waits for his chance at an easy basket. His ability to hover around the restricted area and seal off defenders with his physicality has made him one of Jokic’s most dependable targets.

Gordon also uses flare screens from his teammates to get open for high-quality 3-point looks. In addition, his athletic frame makes him a viable screen-setter for sharpshooters like Jamal Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

All in all, Gordon’s off-ball mastery has transformed him into one of the most efficient players on the planet.

This season, he is shooting 63.3 percent from 2-point range with a ridiculous 70.2 percent clip in the restricted area, where he has attempted 315 of his 508 field goals (62 percent).

At 62.1 percent, Gordon owns the 12th-best effective field goal percentage in the league. He joins Jokic as one of just two players with a top-12 effective field goal percentage and multiple 3-point attempts per contest.

Gordon’s impact has even extended to the charity stripe this season. His aggressive paint play and dominance in the restricted area have seen him attempt a career-best 5.0 free throws per game while sinking a career-best 3.1 per contest.

On top of his individual growth as a player, Gordon has contributed to winning basketball as much as anyone else in the NBA.

The human highlight reel holds the third-best plus-minus in the league with a whopping plus-371 mark on the season. He only trails teammates Jokic and Caldwell-Pope.

Despite his game-changing strides on offense, Gordon is arguably known best for his work on the defensive side of the ball.

As Denver’s best all-around defender, Gordon’s switchable build allows him to guard the opposing team’s best player on a nightly basis. Jokic even called Gordon a “top-five two-way player in the league” in a December interview with Harrison Wind, DNVR.

Gordon has served as a primary catalyst in Denver’s recent defensive spike.

Sitting at 15th in defensive rating this season, the Nuggets have boasted a top-10 defense over their last ten games. Gordon typically anchors this defensive unit with his invaluable versatility.

The bouncy forward has treated the Mile High City to several “Air Gordon” moments this season, none more memorable than his highlight poster slam against Phoenix on Christmas.

Even so, Gordon’s time in Denver hasn’t always gone so smoothly.

Last spring, Gordon’s postseason play left a lot to be desired. He struggled mightily with his shot as he nailed a porous 20 percent of his 3-point tries.

Following the first-round exit, a disappointed Gordon committed to becoming a much smarter basketball player, according to Wind.

“I’m playing with Jok, one of the smartest basketball players in the world. I’ve got to raise my IQ to help him.”

Nine months later, Gordon has certainly stayed true to his word.

Nothing quite motivates an NBA player like an underwhelming playoff performance, and Gordon’s determination to bounce back was apparent.

The Nuggets have reaped the rewards of his hard work all the way to a 36-16 record and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

Gordon has arguably served as this season’s most valuable Nugget outside of Jokic. Aside from his clear statistical impact, he has played 46 out of 52 possible contests. The reliable ironman only missed seven games last season as well.

With the 2023 NBA All-Star Game just a few weeks away, the league revealed this year’s Western Conference reserves last night. Unfortunately, Gordon did not make the cut.

While his counting stats don’t pop out like those of a typical All-Star, Gordon had made a legitimate case for a reserve spot in Utah. His incredible efficiency, impact on both ends of the floor, and key role on the top seed in the west all speak volumes to his magnificent season.

Air Gordon missed out on his first-ever All-Star berth largely due to the depth and talent out west, but his impact has been that of an All-Star all season long. If injuries force any players out of the game, don’t be surprised to see Gordon find his way in as an alternate.

With less than three months to go before the regular season ends, Gordon and the Nuggets will look to continue their dominant play out west.

Boasting the No. 1 offense in the NBA, Denver seems primed for their best-ever postseason in franchise history. However, Aaron Gordon will need to conquer his playoff demons in order for the Nuggets to achieve their championship aspirations.