Aaron Gordon and the “Skill Curve”

“In his book, Basketball on Paper, [Dean] Oliver introduces the “skill curve,” which examines the relationship between the usage and efficiency of NBA players. Oliver theorizes that players are efficient up to some usage threshold, but beyond that point they become less efficient. One reason bad NBA teams are populated by players with bad stats is that those guys are asked to perform beyond their limits.” – Kirk Goldsberry

This  quote is taken from a Grantland.com article about Rudy Gay, a really talented basketball player who has been reviled by the analytics community for being remarkably inefficient. Goldsberry goes on to suggest that Gay’s inefficiency was the result of coaches giving him free reign to chuck up low-percentage jumpers instead of playing to his strengths. The draft prospect who most embodies “The Rudy Gay Principle” is Arizona freshman forward Aaron Gordon.

Gordon has a blend of skills and physical tools that is as unusual as it is intriguing. He has adequate height and wingspan for a PF but has a slender 212 lb. frame that more resembles that of a wing player. Offensively he lacks anything resembling a post game or a jump shot, but he has surprising point forward skills and is an awesome finisher around the hoop. He is quick and smart on defense, but who is he defending?

Aaron Gordon .495 .422 10.2 2.5 1.1 1.3 2.9 15.8
David Lee (Fresh.) .579 .549 10.4 2.3 1.4 1.5 2.8 15.7
Thaddeus Young .478 .743 6.6 2.7 1.7 0.5 2.9 19.4
Shareef Abdur-Rahim .518 .683 9.7 1.2 2.1 1.4 3.6 24.3
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist .491 .745 9.5 2.4 1.3 1.2 2.8 15.3
Al-Farouq Aminu .516 .671 11.3 2.0 1.3 1.7 3.6 17.8

David Lee is a close statistical comparison right down to the awful FT shooting, but Lee shot 8.4% better from the field as a freshman at Florida. Gordon’s efficiency trends towards wing tweeners like MKG and Al-Farouq Aminu, and this accurately reflects the way he plays. Even though his greatest strengths are purported to be his length and athletic ability, Aaron spends a lot of time floating around the perimeter taking mid-range jumpers. This is where the “skill curve” comes into play. According to Hoop-Math.com, more than half of Gordon’s shots this season were two-point jumpers or threes, and he converted fewer than 30% of these shots. If AG is put in a role that caters to his strengths, he could be a really good player. If not, he could be the next Al-Farouq Aminu.  Essentially, Gordon’s NBA success hinges on whether or not the team that drafts him actually knows what to do with him.

One team that seems to utilize the skill curve exceptionally well is the Spurs. They have a knack for finding weird, undervalued players and putting them in roles where they are allowed to become the best possible versions of themselves. Most recently, the Spurs traded Nando de Colo for tweener and former draft bust Austin Daye. In nine games as a Spur, Daye has posted an 18.2 PER (“Solid 2nd Option” level), six points better than his career average. It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that the only good NBA player I can see Gordon emulating is Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard.

Aaron Gordon .513 .356 10.2 2.5 1.1 1.3 2.9 15.8
Kawhi Leonard (Fresh.) .523 .205 12.6 2.4 1.8 0.9 2.9 16.3

I didn’t use Leonard as a comparison because his career path is so different than Gordon’s, but the stats are pretty similar. If AG eliminates the long twos and masters the art of the corner three, I could see him being effective in a small ball PF role like the one Kawhi played for the Spurs in last year’s Finals. Aaron Gordon has a lot of question marks as a prospect, but his upside is significant enough to justify using a lottery pick on him.

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