Aaron Gordon has heard the chatter. He can hardly avoid it. "Every sports analyst mentions 'the freshmen' every time they talk about college basketball," says Gordon, a chiseled 6-foot-8, 220-pound freshman forward at Arizona. "It's everywhere."
So Gordon is familiar with how the national "Who's the top freshman?" debate has been playing out so far. If the discussion centers on a freshmen "fab four" or top ten, Gordon will be included in the conversation. If it's limited to three guys -- "Grading the Freshmen: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle," ran a recent USA Today headline -- he's not. In those instances where he's left out, "I just laugh," says Gordon, speaking on the phone from Tucson on Sunday, the day before the Wildcats were scheduled to fly to New York for the NIT Season Tip-Off. "At the end of the day, it's about winning and about being the best team Arizona can be. Instead of focusing on the freshman class, I focus on how good I can be for my team this year."
In any event, the debate will get some fresh input over the next three days in Madison Square Garden. If Gordon and his teammates can beat Drexel tonight (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU), they could face Duke and Parker in Friday's final -- that is, if the Blue Devils can get past Alabama, no given after they squeaked by Vermont 91-90 on Sunday. That matchup would give Gordon the east coast primetime stage he hasn't yet had.
In the meantime, he isn't that concerned about being considered the fourth-best phenom. Fourth is where ESPN ranked him in the 2013 recruiting class, and what did that really mean? Here's a brief quiz: Who was MVP of that McDonald's All-America game that featured Parker, Wiggins and all six Kentucky freshmen? Aaron Gordon. Who was MVP of this summer's U19 World Championships in Prague, which none of the aforementioned eight players tried out for? Aaron Gordon.
Last June while reporting a profile on Gordon for SI, I spent an evening hanging out with his family and their two special-needs rescue cats under the pepper tree in their San Jose, Calif., backyard. All five of the Gordons -- Aaron, father Ed, mom Shelly, older siblings Drew, a former star at New Mexico, and Elise, a senior center at Harvard -- are tall, athletic, competitive, smart and funny. But when it comes to being what Shelly calls "singular of purpose," a term she once heard the mother of Olympic skater Kristi Yamaguchi use in an interview, Aaron stands out. "She talked about how so many Olympians are one-track people; that's how they get as far as they do," said Shelly. "They are so about that one thing that it defines them as a human being. Aaron is like that."
All the Gordons had stories about the things Aaron had given up over the years to pursue greatness in basketball -- glory in other sports, class trips overseas, time off to recovery from injuries or illness. "I want to be the best," Aaron said that night. "That's the only goal I have. I know there are a lot of great players out there. But I know if I can maximize my potential, it'll be better than the next guy maximizing his potential. That's what keeps me motivated."
This is what Gordon maximizing his potential looks like right now: He rebounds and dunks like a power forward, defends like a wing, thinks like a point guard (Magic Johnson is his idol) and sees the floor like a coach and hustles like an end-of-the-bench scrub. Through five games, all wins, he is averaging a team-leading nine rebounds and 13 points (second on the team, behind junior guard Nick Johnson.)
Not that many people have seen him perform. Gordon's biggest moment in the spotlight to date was a 69-60 win at San Diego State on Nov. 14, which finished around midnight ET. Showing off the versatility that Arizona coach Sean Miller says defines him, Gordon had 16 points (including two three-pointers), eight rebounds, three steals, two blocks, and two assists while guarding just about every position on the floor. In a memorable move with 81 seconds to go, he grabbed an inbounds lob from TJ McConnell and made a thunderous two-handed jam while drawing a foul to extend the Wildcats' lead to six and silence the raucous Viejas Arena crowd.
Then he missed the free throw, which revealed his Achilles heel. The biggest knock on Gordon, and the reason people have doubted his ability to play small forward in the NBA, has been his unreliable shot. That was part of the reason Gordon picked Arizona, a program he researched so thoroughly that he knew that Miller won the 2012 "Shots from the heart" free throw competition among 64 DI coaches and is still Pitt's career leader in free throw shooting (88.5%).
Just as Gordon hoped, Miller and his staff have helped him find a shooting motion that works. "After that, it's repetition," says Gordon. "I picked a shot and I stayed with it. My confidence is up, and I'm starting to fall in love with the jumper. I think it's going to be pretty dangerous once I get more reps in."
Through five games Gordon is shooting 50 percent (4-8) from the perimeter and 48 percent from the field. His free throw shooting (42.9%) remains dismal, however. "My free throws haven't come along as well as my other shots," he says. "I'm still adjusting. Now I've picked one motion and I'm sticking with it. It's improving."
Meanwhile the Gordon attributes that coaches love to tout -- basketball IQ, leadership, passion, motor -- are as strong as ever. "I've never seen a kid with a motor like Aaron's," says Arizona's associate head coach Joe Pasternack. "It's non stop. That's why he can get 20 rebounds a game. That's just sheer determination."
Gordon is famed for his rebounding, in both the quantity he produces -- he averaged almost 16 boards a game in high school -- and the range he considers within reach. "He rebounds the whole backboard," says Florida coach Billy Donovan, who coached the gold-medal winning U-19 team this summer. "He gets them from anywhere." Donovan was also blown away by Gordon's stamina playing at the top of the press. "That's really grueling for a front court player, to have to chase guards, trap in the backcourt and play 94 feet," says Donovan. "But Aaron just doesn't get tired."
Whether or not Gordon feels like he has something to prove to the nation this week in New York, you can be sure he'll play like he does.
There is one bit of Gordon's potential-maximizing plan that has hit a snag. Last summer he told me about his goal of getting straight As in college, something he hadn't done in high school. How is that going? "It's a lot harder than I thought it would be," he says. "It's not straight As, but I'm doing pretty well in college classes. It's very challenging as a student-athlete."
For Gordon, the studying never seems to end. When Parker, Wiggins, Randle and the other Kentucky freshmen were showcased in the Champions Classic games (Michigan State vs. Kentucky and Kansas vs. Duke) in Chicago on Nov. 12, Gordon sat in Johnson's house and scribbled down notes. "With Duke and Kentucky I could see that the offenses are heavily oriented toward (Parker and Randle)," says Gordon. "Which isn't a bad thing. It's cool." But that's not Gordon's role with Wildcats, which have depth and upper-class experience in the backcourt and future NBA players all over the front court. "I think here I'm more of a glue guy, with a lot of talent," he says. "And that works out for everybody. Because winning is the biggest accolade, you know?"