Aaron Gordon doesn’t belong in a box. That much was obvious as he diced up San Diego State in No. 6 Arizona’s 69-60 road win over the Aztecs on Thursday night.
As the Wildcats began to unravel in the final minutes -- most of the team’s starters had encountered foul trouble by then -- Sean Miller turned to the freshman. With 82 seconds remaining in the game and the Wildcats up by just four after squandering a double-digit lead, point guard T.J. McConnell threw a lob pass to Gordon on the inbounds.
Gordon ignored the frenzied San Diego State sellout crowd, climbed over 6-foot-5 freshman Dakarai Allen and finished with a dazzling flush that silenced the building.
Perhaps his critics, too.
Before he arrived in Tucson, Ariz., Gordon dismissed assumptions.
At 6-9, 225 pounds, he looks like a power forward. But he doesn’t play like one.
Gordon has been likened to NBA All-Star Blake Griffin for his ferocious dunks -- and probably based on his complexion, too. But Gordon rejected those comparisons prior to the beginning of his first and only season at the Division I level.
"He’s an incredible player; he’s the No. 1 pick," Gordon told Sporting News in July when asked about the Griffin comparisons. "I can’t be too mad if people are comparing me to a No. 1 pick, but I can play point guard."
Point guard? That sounded like the type of crazy talk that this generation of LeBron James wannabes often spews, failing to recognize the difference between doing a bunch of things and doing a bunch of things well.
But Gordon, like his game, was serious.
Against the Aztecs, Gordon auditioned his outside-the-box skill set.
He began the game by dribbling into a trap.
He made few mistakes after that.
Gordon, ranked fourth in the 2013 recruiting class by RecruitingNation, dribbled up the floor solo, pushed toward the rim, stopped and scored early. He hit a couple of 3-pointers, too. There was also a jump shot in the lane.
In the first half of the first half, Gordon had scored 12 points and made all five of his field goal attempts. Just 10 minutes into the game, it was clear that Gordon was on a different level than everyone else on the floor.
On Tuesday night, Gordon’s elite peers in the freshman class anchored one of the biggest events in the history of college basketball’s nonconference slate. During the Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle justified the hype with impressive efforts.
If this was Gordon’s coming-out party, it definitely occurred under different circumstances. The Wildcats were playing in a brutal environment for visitors.
The game began at 10 p.m. Eastern, bedtime for many outside the West Coast.
That, however, didn’t make his effort less dazzling. Gordon put on a performance that rivaled those orchestrated by the other future millionaires who were featured on Tuesday night at the United Center.
He’s not a power forward and he’s not a point guard. But he is a combo forward who can be trusted to handle the ball and roam on the perimeter in Arizona’s offense. He’s an excellent passer. He’s also a versatile defender.
Gordon’s athleticism helps him guard multiple positions and smaller players. His movements are fluid.
With less than six minutes to go, SDSU forward JJ O’Brien drove to the rim as Gordon harassed him. Gordon had played cautiously after picking up his third foul, but he tracked O’Brien, and then, he swatted a shot that would have extended a brief SDSU rally.
He finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks, 2 assists and zero questions about his potential.
He didn’t win the game alone. Nick Johnson (game-high 23 points) was a catalyst on both ends for the Wildcats. McConnell (six assists, two turnovers) was a leader. Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (seven points, five rebounds) might be a star soon, too.
But Gordon is the game-changer, the talent who could lead Arizona to a Pac-12 championship and so much more.
It’s not easy to leave Viejas Arena with a victory, especially when your team is counting on a freshman to make big plays down the stretch.
Yet Gordon was calm in that moment, his moment. And that was the difference.
Gordon will play multiple games this season that will commence after a chunk of the country has already fallen asleep. And perhaps that will affect his street cred when folks assess the 2013 class.
It’s clear, however, that Gordon belongs in the same conversation as the other three freshman stars who excelled earlier this week in Chicago.