ANAHEIM, Calif. — It has become as much cliche in the sports world as taking it one game at a time and saying defense wins championships.
What it means is anyone’s guess, given the fact most underclassmen who depart college early for the riches of an NBA contract aren’t totally prepared to succeed immediately against the planet’s best players.
There are flaws in the games of most every lottery pick.
Aaron Gordon is not immune.
He is a freshman for Arizona with a pro body and skill set, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward who hopes to help deliver the Wildcats into the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament tonight.
That’s the reward for whichever team emerges victorious between Arizona and Wisconsin in the West Region final at the Honda Center.
Gordon is an ideal face of today’s NBA lottery, meaning a work in progress who is incredibly athletic. That’s not such a bad thing when you consider his upside and attitude. He never stops working. He’s always in the gym.
He has been compared most to Clippers star Blake Griffin.
There is far worse company with which to be associated.
Potential can be just as enticing to NBA teams as proven ability, and it’s this untapped ceiling of talent that has Wisconsin worried most about tonight’s game.
Of those eight teams remaining in the field, the Badgers are the smartest side. They run their stuff better than anyone still standing. They might be the toughest team breathing.
They are not the most athletic.
They are not close to that.
Gordon has every opportunity each game to make five or six plays most college players can’t, the type of momentum-changing baskets or defensive stops that usually push Arizona over the top when things are close late.
“He is a very good player, one of the best in the nation at his position,” said Wisconsin sophomore Sam Dekker, who likely will draw the assignment of guarding Gordon. “You always have to be ready for things a great athlete can throw at you. Stay solid. Try and take some things away from him. It’s a challenge. But if you’re a competitor, you want to match up against the best.”
This isn’t the NBA, so the fact Gordon lacks any significant middle game and his jump shot is below pedestrian and his free-throw percentage of 42.1 wouldn’t get him off the bench in crunch time of your average pee-wee game hasn’t had the negative influence many would assume.
Arizona is 33-4 entering tonight’s game.
Gordon is an enormous piece to such a fantastic puzzle.
The moment tonight shouldn’t be too big for him. Gordon is from a basketball family — his dad played at San Diego State, older brother Drew at UCLA and then New Mexico, sister Elise at Harvard.
Big games have been part of his life for some time now.
“Anybody that earns the right to be on the floor in the NCAA Tournament is physically and mentally ready,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “Young men like (Gordon) are. They have the physical tools and the understanding of how to play within a system.”
Sometimes, Gordon plays too much within it.
It was Wednesday afternoon when a San Diego State assistant coach, his team preparing to meet Arizona here the following night, spoke about watching Gordon on film. The Aztecs were amazed about how unselfish a player of his caliber was, almost to a fault at times. Over and over, Gordon gave up the ball when he could have driven or taken a shot.
This is one trait pro scouts love about him and yet also has them concerned. Until he can develop a consistent shot, NBA suits wonder where a hybrid forward like Gordon will fit. He is undersized at the next level, has average length and easily could be y pushed around by much sturdier frames.
But then he expertly defends both forward spots, stays out of foul trouble, relentlessly crashes the offensive boards and finishes transition chances with thunderous one-handed dunks on a dead sprint.
Then, you see why he will be a Top 10 pick come June.
“I love my team to death,” Gordon said. “So much heart for 40 minutes each game. It’s easy to play hard when you’re around those kind of guys. No matter what, we’ll leave it all on the line.”
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.