NEW YORK — Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon electrified the NBA world in the Slam Dunk Contest in 2016 and ’17, and he was expected to return to do the same this season in Charlotte, North Carolina. Instead, he’s taking a step back.
“No, I’m not doing it [this year],” Gordon told Yahoo Sports. “It’s more focusing on winning and becoming a complete player and getting to the playoffs.”
Gordon, 23, missed Sunday night’s blowout victory over the New York Knicks with a left ankle injury. It was a game that presented plenty of opportunities for him to delight the crowd with his aerial assaults.
But he was forced to keep his flair to his wardrobe, wearing a cream-colored jacket that he referred to as lamb, with gold jewelry and designer glasses. He hasn’t lost his flavor, he’s just not bringing it to All-Star Saturday night.
“It’s fun, good exposure. I’ll do it again eventually. Not this year, though,” Gordon said.
Many fans would love to see a rematch between Gordon and Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine, who arguably put on the best dunk contest of all time in 2016 in Toronto, when perfect scores were exchanged across the board. The two had to go an extra round before LaVine, then a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, was crowned the winner.
Since then, LaVine suffered an ACL tear and was traded to Chicago before raising his game with the Bulls this season. LaVine is the only player to score 20 points in each game, and he’s fifth in the league in scoring at 27.2 points per game.
For Gordon, he’s had upheaval of a different kind that has limited his growth. Although Gordon is only in his fifth year, new Magic coach Steve Clifford is his fifth coach as the franchise has sputtered since trading Dwight Howard in 2012.
“A lot of different coaches, different systems, different people coaching you, telling you different things,” Gordon told Yahoo Sports. “You don’t see the results, you don’t see the wins. You gotta make sure you keep your game sharp, so when the wins come [you’re ready].”
Physically, he’s a matchup nightmare, and his game has grown since he was selected fourth overall in the 2014 NBA draft. He’s shooting a career-high 38.2 percent from 3-point range while posting career bests in rebounds (8.1) and assists (2.5).
But it’s the alley-oops and unexpected putback dunks that keep the attention of the general public, so sitting out the dunk contest is a step in changing that perception.
“I’ve worked on my jumper a lot, since I was young, and it’s developed,” Gordon said. “And other things, my handles, passing, making reads. I’ll continue to work on it and continue to show.”
The Magic front office now appears to have stability with team president Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond joining a year ago. They rewarded Gordon’s stair-step growth with a four-year, $76 million contract extension in July.
Many are hoping for the type of leap former teammates Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo experienced after leaving Orlando. Oladipo was traded twice after being selected second overall in 2013, learning from Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City to become the NBA Most Improved Player with Indiana last season.
“Everybody has their own path, of course,” Gordon said. “I’m proud of those guys. I’m glad to see them doing well, but everybody has their own path so I’ll see what my journey is. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but that’s the fun part about it.”
The key to improving, Weltman and Hammond have expressed to Gordon, is being a better shot-creator for himself and utilizing his athleticism to punish smaller players in the post. If that happens, they believe it’ll play a huge part in the Magic returning to the postseason for the first time since Howard and former coach Stan Van Gundy were trading shots at each other in press conferences.
For Gordon, just having the consistency from the top down is welcome, as Clifford and the front office appear to be aligned.
“We didn’t find out who our coach was this year until late in the summer, but I knew what I needed to do to get better, in order to be an All-Star in this league, superstar, whatever,” Gordon said. “You gotta be more consistent, more efficient, stronger. I’m a good basketball mind. I’m growing into a great basketball mind, hopefully. I feel like I know what it takes, but it’s a lot of sacrifice, a lot of hard work and you gotta go through those failures and those losses.”
Talking the talk
“He’s the heart and soul of our program. So, really tough blow.”
— Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, addressing the leg injury suffered by third-year swingman Caris LeVert against Minnesota on Monday night
LeVert was an early favorite to win NBA Most Improved Player (19 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists) after battling through leg injuries at the University of Michigan.
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