SAN DIEGO — As Julius Randle, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins dazzled the nation during Tuesday night's Champions Classic, fellow elite freshman Aaron Gordon watched from the couch like college basketball fans everywhere.
The only difference was the Arizona standout had a pen and notepad in his lap.
"I just sat there, watched the games, analyzed, made little notes and different things," Gordon said. "I was picking apart all their games and studying where we can match up and how we can match up in case we see them later this season."
In the unlikely event any of the nation's other top players studied Gordon just as closely during Arizona's 69-60 victory at San Diego State on Thursday night, they would have witnessed a player who hasn't received the attention he deserves. Randle, Parker and Wiggins have been touted as the top players in this year's loaded freshman class, but the 6-foot-8 Gordon's combination of size, versatility, smarts and motor suggests he belongs in the conversation.
Though Gordon's 16 points, eight rebounds and three steals look impressive on their own, his stat line doesn't fully depict how many ways he helped sixth-ranked Arizona survive a hostile crowd and a motivated opponent to improve to 3-0.
You want perimeter finesse? Six of Gordon's 12 first-half points came on a pair of threes, helping Arizona build a double-digit lead. How about strength and athleticism? Gordon finished with more rebounds than any player on either team despite sitting for long stretches of the game in foul trouble. And defense? Gordon recorded a pair of blocks and capably guarded anyone from wings, to back-to-the-basket big men, to fellow combo forwards. What about passing? On one of Gordon's two assists, he curled around a Kaleb Tarczewski screen, pulled up to shoot a mid-range jumper and instead deftly passed to Tarczewski rolling to the rim for a layup.
Gordon's most memorable play put San Diego State away after the Aztecs had trimmed a 14-point second-half deficit to four with less than two minutes remaining. Nick Johnson was the primary option on an out of bounds play from underneath the basket, but T.J. McConnell spotted Gordon circling toward the rim and delivered a pinpoint lob for a soaring two-handed dunk that silenced the roaring San Diego State crowd and extended Arizona's lead to six again.
"Originally we were looking for Nick because he had the hot hand at the time, but they took him away, which freed Aaron for the lob," McConnell said. "Aaron's one of the best athletes I've ever seen. He went up, got that ball and just threw it in. I was amazed by what I saw."
Most of Gordon's multi-faceted game was evident throughout his high school career when he led Arch Bishop Mitty High School to three straight California state title game appearances and earned MVP honors at the McDonald's All-American game. Only the ball handling and perimeter shooting are assets that Gordon has improved since arriving in Tucson a few months ago.
Questions abounded from skeptics when Arizona coach Sean Miller revealed a few months ago that he intended to start Gordon at small forward instead of in the paint. Gordon did most of his scoring on tip-ins, dunks and low-post moves in high school, but Arizona had returning starters Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley back at center and power forward.
Eager to help Arizona win and to add elements to his game that would make himself more appealing to NBA scouts, Gordon embraced the transition. In addition to going full-throttle in practice as he always did before, Gordon has committed to arriving earlier than any of his teammates and staying later in order to spend extra time improving the mechanics of his jump shot, a regimen that has resulted in him hitting 4 of 5 threes so far this season.
"What separates Aaron Gordon is who he is as a person and his collective attitude," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "If you would have seen him shoot at the beginning of the summer and then watch him shoot now, it's night and day. It's because of his own efforts and him working tirelessly to get better."
Examples like that of Gordon's work ethic are so common that it explains why the sight of him scribbling scouting reports on teams Arizona may not even face this season didn't faze any of his teammates. They've seen this sort of maniacal focus from him enough to be accustomed to it by now.
"That's just Aaron," Johnson said with a chuckle. "He knows that maybe sometime in the near future or later this season, we'll meet up with some of those teams. He was just jotting down a scouting report."
For those scouting reports of Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State to ever prove useful, Arizona will need more than Gordon to play at a Final Four-caliber level. The good news is so far Gordon is far from a one-man show.
Wing Nick Johnson scored 23 points and snuffed the first of San Diego State's big second-half rallies on Thursday night by taking a key charge at one end and then scoring on the ensuing possession. T.J. McConnell is the steady, pass-first point guard Arizona has lacked previously under Sean Miller, while Tarczewski and Ashley provide size, length and rebounding in the paint.
With all that talent around him, it's no wonder Gordon wasn't the least bit intimidated Tuesday night watching four of the five teams ahead of Arizona in the national rankings.
Said Gordon, "They're good teams, but I think Arizona can match up with any one of those teams."
Perhaps we'll find out in five months.
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