One of the best rebounding prospects in this year's draft is Drew Gordon, but that should come as no surprise since he’s spent his college career “rebounding” from detours on his road to the NBA.
I spoke to Gordon to discuss how he “rebounded” from a rough stint under Ben Howland at UCLA, a torn knee meniscus injury upon transferring to New Mexico, and his damaged reputation from a recent Sports Illustrated article.
Coming out of high school Gordon planned to sign with Washington and Lorenzo Romar, but he encountered his first detour and ultimately signed with UCLA and Howland.
“Some family issues came up with my family members that were down in LA," said Gordon. "So I made a last second decision to be closer to them and be there if they needed me. UCLA was right around the corner. I figured that would be a good spot for me to wind up and it was a good program."
However, the experience for Gordon at UCLA didn’t go according to plan both on and off the court. During Gordon’s freshman season, he averaged only 11 minutes per game. The following sophomore season, Gordon played in only six games before parting ways with the team.
Gordon’s time at UCLA became a revisited topic thanks to a Sports Illustrated article that negatively portrayed him during his time with the program.
“It’s not anything close to who I am and how I act as a person. The article was hurtful, but a setback is a setup for a great comeback. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not something that’s going to knock me down. I have to take it in stride and keep moving forward,” said Gordon.
For Gordon, his two years as an underclassman at UCLA had a major impact on the future of his college basketball career on the court and his life off it.
“Going through it was difficult, you have to really figure out what you want early in life," said Gordon. "It was rough throughout the whole process at UCLA. Just learning from your mistakes and figuring out what you actually wanted in life was really helpful. It really made me grow into who I am today and make the University of New Mexico so successful for me."
Hoping for a fresh start, Gordon decided to transfer to New Mexico.
“I knew the assistant coach Wyking Jones at the time,” said Gordon. “You don’t get a lot of do-overs in college like that. For me it was a chance to go somewhere where I knew somebody, where I trusted somebody, and have them be able to take care of me.”
Gordon’s new start got off on the wrong foot, literally, as he experienced another detour. Gordon had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Despite the injury, Gordon was determined to rebound from it.
“Our trainer (Nate Burney) at school did an amazing job with my rehab and was really on top of things,” said Gordon. “The knee injury really motivated me to make sure my body is right and nothing like that happens again God willing.”
That was the only blemish on Gordon’s two seasons at New Mexico as he averaged just over 13 points and nearly 11 rebounds per game, including a third round trip in the NCAA Tournament last season.
According to Gordon, much of the credit for his success at New Mexico was due to Steve Alford.
“He really paid attention to what my strengths and weaknesses were and really tried to key in and fix those, try to perfect those," said Gordon. "He took time to work with me individually as a player and a person as opposed to just trying to fit me into his system. I think that really benefited me as a player and as a person."
The Mountain West Conference also gave Gordon a chance to expand his game and prepare for the NBA.
“It really helped me out being able to be more vocal on the court and play a bigger part in the team,” said Gordon. “My second year at New Mexico I was playing against double and triple teams a lot so it really made me work. It really made me figure out how to get rebounds, take that extra step, and get that hustle point.”
Despite the recent presence of Kawhi Leonard and Jimmer Fredette, the Mountain West Conference isn’t routinely associated with top NBA prospects.
“Regardless of what conference you play in, or where you play, it’s tough to average a double-double for two years straight,” said Gordon. “If recognition comes along that’s great. I like to win. I like to play basketball. That’s all that really matters to me.”
Gordon has earned recognition from various NBA teams and has worked out for the Warriors, Thunder, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Celtics, Kings, Heat, Raptors, and Spurs. Gordon also participated in the Santa Barbara, Nets and NBA Draft Combines.
In those workouts and combines, Gordon showed teams his total skill set package and he changed the perception of his game around the league.
“I’ve got a pretty decent pick-and-pop game. I can hit the open jumper. I’ve got pretty good touch around the basket to a 15-18 foot shot. I think it’s been overlooked a little bit because it wasn’t really necessary at New Mexico and how our offense was because I played a lot around the basket. I’ve really worked hard on trying to get my jumper better and making sure that everything is on point,” said Gordon. “A lot of people are surprised by how good of shape I’m in and the fact that I’m able to knock down jumpers. A lot of people just pictured me as a garbage man. It’s always nice to know that I’m able to surprise people.”
When Gordon isn’t working out for NBA teams you can find him training with P3 Sports Science in Santa Barbara.
“They’ve been doing a lot of stuff with me including back-to-the-basket stuff, face-ups, and working on my whole game all around and it’s really paid off. I’m confident in my jump shot and my back-to-the-basket game,” said Gordon.
Gordon currently projects as an early second round pick hoping to crack the first round bubble. Gordon is reminiscent of Udonis Haslem and Brandon Bass.
As a four-year college prospect, Gordon feels he’s ready for the demanding NBA play on the court and the lifestyle off it.
“I think one of the major things is I was able to finish college and get a degree. That’s something that is looked highly upon, especially at the next level. The willingness to commit and finish out what you started and keep going at it until it’s done. I think it really speaks highly of me as a person and my work ethic,” said Gordon. “When I’m not playing basketball I don’t know what to do with myself. So I’d rather work out and get better than hang out with friends, which can help out in the long run because not many people are not willing to do that.”
In addition, Gordon is also an excellent rebounder in the literal sense too.
“I’m just a workhorse really. I’m a high energy and high motor guy,” said Gordon. “I definitely think it will transfer over because of my willingness to work hard and go that extra mile to get that rebound. Rebounding is what I do and I find it fun. A lot of people don’t take that into consideration. I really take rebounding personally.”
Soon Gordon’s hard work rebounding, both on and off the court, will come full circle when he here’s his name called during the NBA Draft.
“Any team that’s willing to take a chance on me is going to get a good investment on their part and get somebody that works hard,” said Gordon.