Arizona will lose freshman forward Aaron Gordon to the NBA, as expected and as reported by Yahoo Sports on Monday. At the most fundamental level, someone will replace him. He was another in a line of explosive, productive forwards the program has produced, and another will follow him into the lineup. But that player isn't likely to be able to replicate what Gordon did and the valuable skillset he offered. Because he'll be tasked with replacing the best defensive player on the best defensive team in the nation.
By several measures, the 6-foot-9, 225-pound Gordon impacted games defensively as well or better than anyone in 2013-14. The desire and ability to do so is challenging to teach, if it can be taught at all. His defense, combined with his wild athleticism and contributions elsewhere (12.4 points, 49.5 percent shooting, 8.0 rebounds), make Gordon an uncommon player. The NBA probably will recognize this by making him a first-round pick.
Gordon's individual defensive rating -- points allowed per 100 possessions -- was 88.6, ranking 13th nationally. But his defensive win shares total -- a measure of how many victories were attributable to his defensive efforts -- was 3.3, which was the best in the country. It may be that good offense beats good defense, or that point-of-attack harassment changes the flow of games more conclusively than lane or rim protection. (Connecticut, certainly, rode that latter belief to a national title.) But losing a player who is quick and bouncy enough to guard three or four positions is a blow. That gave Arizona coach Sean Miller mismatches and options most coaches don't enjoy, and his team wound up leading the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency as a result, at 88.5 points per 100 possessions, per kenpom.com.
Thus, Gordon's departure is a meaningful loss. Still, it will be worse if Nick Johnson or Brandon Ashley or Kaleb Tarczewski decide to follow Gordon into the NBA draft. Johnson, the All-America guard, tied for 11th nationally in defensive win shares with 3.0. Tarczewski only blocked 36 shots in 1,020 minutes in 2013-14, but he's a 7-foot presence near the rim. Ashley, another center, was as versatile a defender as Gordon in some ways.
So the Wildcats can get along next season without Gordon, as long as the other important pieces don't scatter as well. It will certainly help to have point guard T.J. McConnell, who tied for second in defensive win shares nationally at 3.2, back. And maybe Ashley's defense and the expected offensive firepower of five-star wing recruit Stanley Johnson combine to mitigate the loss of what Gordon provided on each end. Arizona should be solid enough defensively in 2014-15. It just won't be easy to be the same without someone like Gordon, a player among the best at what he does.