A five-star prospect out of high school, his one year at Indiana was overshadowed by the dramatic implosion of Kelvin Sampson’s career. A text messaging scandal forced Sampson to step down as head coach in the middle of Gordon’s freshman season.
The Clippers took him 7th overall in 2008, behind Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. So instead of making a name for himself in the Rookie of the Year race, he shared the spotlight as part of one of the strongest draft classes in recent memory.
Nor did he walk into a particularly good situation with the Clippers. That summer, they signed Baron Davis to play with Elton Brand, only to watch their nominal franchise player bolt for Philadelphia. Davis, unmotivated and listless, openly rebelled against coach Mike Dunleavy, and the Clippers won only 48 games in Gordon’s first two seasons.
They didn’t begin turning the corner until last season, in what would have been his senior year of college. But most of the coverage of the team revolved around Blake Griffin, even before Gordon broke his wrist halfway through the year.
And while Griffin earned every bit of the praise he received, Gordon is an equally important part of the Clippers future. He’s undersized for a shooting guard at 6’3 220, but he makes up for his lack of height with a 6’9 wingspan and a 40 inch vertical. He has the quickness and length to be an excellent defender at both guard positions, and he earned raves for his defense during the tryouts for the 2010 World Championships.
Offensively, he has all the tools. He’s the rare great shooter, with career averages of 81% from the line and 37.5% from beyond the arc, who is just as comfortable taking the ball to the hole. Thirty percent of his shots came inside the paint last season, an excellent number for a 6’3 guard. Nor, as his 26.6 usage rating indicates, was he simply a product of the defensive attention Griffin drew.
Most impressively, he can run point and create shots for his teammates: he averaged 4.4 assists to 2.7 turnovers, giving him an assist to turnover ratio of 1.7. The ability to beat your man off the dribble, draw a double team and make the correct pass without turning it over is what separates good shooting guards from great ones; Kevin Martin, for example, has career averages of 2.0 assists and 1.8 turnovers.
James Harden is the only other young shooting guard in the NBA with his package of skills, and he’s had the luxury of playing off Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook his entire career. Tyreke Evans and DeMar DeRozan are abysmal outside shooters, Monta Ellis is too undersized (6’3 178 with a 6’3 wingspan) to ever be a good defender and OJ Mayo doesn’t have the athleticism to consistently get into the lane.
A great shooting guard doesn’t need a backcourt partner who dominates the ball, which is why the Clippers shouldn’t be too concerned about losing the pick that eventually became Kyrie Irving. A healthy Brandon Roy clashed repeatedly with Andre Miller when the Trail Blazers acquired the point guard, since both were more effective playing with the ball in their hands. In contrast, Kobe Bryant has thrived with Derek Fisher, a role player who focused on playing defense and shooting 3’s, at the point. Similarly, Gordon’s play-making and versatility should make the game a lot easier for Eric Bledsoe, the Clippers’ first-round pick out of Kentucky last season.
It’s not like there is a clear line between the two guard positions in the modern NBA anyway. With only so many shots to go around, most teams have one guard who dominates the ball and one who plays off of it. And if Gordon plays to his potential, his real peer group won’t be his fellow shooting guards but Westbrook and Rose, two other 6’3 guards who dominate the ball.