Aaron Gordon entered the NBA in 2014 as an enticing young prospect who’d already achieved tremendous success at every major level. After capturing two California state championships and dominating the AAU circuit, he earned MVP honors from the highly prestigious McDonald’s All-American Game ― an award previously won by the likes of LeBron James, Jabari Parker and Dwight Howard. In college, he was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year while guiding Arizona to the Elite Eight.
Finally, the Orlando Magic made the San Jose native the fourth overall pick in the NBA draft, providing one of the league’s most hapless franchises with a marquee name. Maybe he wasn’t the next Shaq or Penny Hardaway, but Gordon offered hope and excitement to a rudderless organization in dire need of it. What’s more, Gordon possesses many of the qualities that teams covet in an emerging star, including humility and selflessness.
At just 21 years old, Gordon has an almost supernatural understanding of what his body needs to be successful. He believes that the mental aspect of basketball is just as important as the physical side ― maybe even more so. It’s why he sets aside specific times to nap at least 30 minutes per day, and why he devised a nutrition plan based on a high-protein diet to help him operate as efficiently as possible. It’s also why he practices yoga and acupuncture regularly during the offseason to help his muscles regenerate.
“I’m at the point where I come out on the court, I’m looking to do just play,” he tells The Huffington Post. “It sounds simple but it’s not. I clear my mind and I stay in the present moment and I play the game. I make the read, I see the game, I feel my body, I feel my feet and it’s just more fun. It’s liberating.”
By trading Serge Ibaka to Toronto, the Magic have reinstalled Gordon in his natural four-man slot, yielding excellent early returns.
At 6 feet 9 inches and 220 pounds, Gordon is a superior athlete and physical specimen ― even by NBA standards ― with a lightning-quick first step and the rare ability to defend all five positions. A ferocious and creative dunker who uses his strong frame to absorb contact, he also finishes very well at the rim.
He displayed all of this in a Feb. 25 win over Atlanta, connecting on 7-11 shots while tallying 18 points, 3 assists and 2 steals ― a testament to his dynamic versatility and remarkable athletic ability.
Gordon, who in his third season as a pro is averaging a career-high 11 points per game, feels more at ease on the floor, even when he’s played out of position on the wing.
“He made some great, great plays,” Orlando head coach Frank Vogel said after the win against Atlanta. “He’s getting the ball now with space and no one between him and the basket, whereas when he was playing on the perimeter, they were backing up and there was a body in front of him at all times.”
“You have to be very diligent and very disciplined,” Gordon said. “Becoming very in tune with what’s happening, from my toes to the top of my head to my fingertips.”
“After my rookie-year injury [a fractured left foot], I understood that if I want to be a Hall of Famer ― if I want to do everything I want to do ― then I’m gonna need to take care of my body,” he said. “I’m very detail-oriented when I need to take care of my body.”
Part of how Gordon stays fresh and sharp is finding ways to challenge his brain. While many young NBA players spend a nontrivial amount of time on video games and social media, Gordon’s downtime revolves more around reading and meditation, a habit he says began during his youth. He often plays the piano ― Outkast is a favorite ― to exert his mind in multiple ways, and he marvels at how his downtime makes him feel.
“Sports psychology isn’t all that embraced yet in the sports world,” he says. “It’s starting to become prevalent and more recognized.”
When Gordon was 11 and just beginning to comprehend how far basketball might one day take him, he tore his ACL and sustained a major concussion. As he worked his way back, it was his older brother Drew ― starring for UCLA and then New Mexico ― who garnered all the headlines. By taking a step back, Gordon also came to understand how much the game can consume you.
“[My brother] went through a little bit of that identity crisis,” Gordon said. “Like, ‘Am I a basketball player or am I a human being?’”
When Drew discovered that delicate balance, his game then kicked into high gear, blossoming to new heights. Following a brief NBA stint, the older Gordon brother has since become one of the best professional players in all of Europe.
Ultimately, it was witnessing Drew’s struggle and perseverance that allowed Aaron to grow as a person, and as a player. The next steps are to deploy his strenuous practice regimen and complement his powerful athleticism. By becoming a more consistent perimeter shooter (he converts just 28 percent from 3 and 32 percent in catch-and-shoot opportunities), a better ball handler and a more confident post-up player, Gordon’s production will dramatically increase.
Regardless of what happens on the court, though, Gordon ― whose vibrant personality has led to endorsement deals with Nike and Uptime Energy ― will be at peace seeking fulfillment from other aspects of life, hoping a sound mind and body will only help.
“Basketball is not my life,” he says. “It’s a portion of my life. I like developing the person before I like developing the basketball player. What happens is if you develop the person, then the basketball player becomes better... I realize that it’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming a basketball player, but eventually you go through an identity crisis.”
“It’s never too late to understand who you are as a person,” he muses. “Basketball has always been a sanctuary for me to free my mind, and it’s not gonna change.”