Sixers draft target: SF Aaron Gordon

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Sixers draft target: SF Aaron Gordon

In this installment of our series before June 26's NBA draft, we look at an versatile forward that is expected to be a top-10 pick:

Aaron Gordon
Position: Small Forward
Height/Weight: 6-9, 225
School: Arizona

Another in a handful of projected lottery picks to leave college after one season, Gordon takes a backseat to no one in this draft class in terms of athleticism. He is an elite leaper and shot blocker and runs extremely well for someone his size. Gordon averaged 12.4 points and 8.0 rebounds on an Arizona team that spent most of the season ranked No. 1 in the country.

Much was expected from Gordon when he arrived at Arizona following his MVP performance in the McDonald's All-American Game. He flashed glimpses of tremendous potential throughout his freshman season, but it also became apparent that he has a long way to go before developing into a complete player.

In Arizona's season-ending overtime loss to Wisconsin in the Elite 8, the best and worst of Gordon was on full display -- he grabbed 18 rebounds, but scored just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting from the field.

Strengths
Gordon's athleticism and defensive versatility go hand-in-hand. He is athletic enough to guard small forwards and power forwards in the NBA, and his shot-blocking ability will make him a very effective help defender. Gordon will also excel in transition on the next level. He'll be able to out-run most forwards on the fast break and will have no trouble finishing around the rim. There won't be a shortage of plays involving Gordon on the morning highlight shows.

Gordon is also an underrated ballhandler, especially in the open court. He has little trouble leading the fast break and manages to make the right decisions most of the time. Above all, he's a guy front-office types fall in love with because of his measurables and athleticism. General managers and coaches will think they can fix his flaws and play to his strengths. Time will tell if he'll ever live up to that "tremendous upside" label he has been given. He doesn't turn 19 until September, so time is on his side.

Weaknesses
Very raw and unpolished on the offensive end. He lacks a go-to move in the low post and is limited on the perimeter. Despite getting most of his opportunities close to the basket, he shot a shade under 50 percent from the field. Gordon's jump shot is so ineffective that defenders will let him shoot until he proves he can make shots consistently. Then there is his free throw shooting -- Gordon shot a horrendous 42 percent from the foul line last season. He'll need to improve that aspect of his game considerably or risk being a liability at the end of close games.

How he'd fit with the Sixers
Depends on which end of the floor you're talking about. Defensively, he would be a tremendous asset. Opponents would have a tough time getting clean looks at the basket against a frontline featuring Gordon and Nerlens Noel. Gordon would also provide Brett Brown with great defensive versatility, as he's able to defend several positions on the floor.

Offensively, he would fit in well with Michael Carter-Williams and company pushing the tempo. The Sixers aren't afraid to run, and Gordon can certainly do that. But when push comes to shove, this Sixers team needs players that can be counted on to score in half-court sets. That is not Gordon at this point, not even close. It will take some time before he becomes a consistent offensive performer.

NBA comparison
Blake Griffin is a popular name here, but I'm not buying that outside of the high-flying dunks. Shawn Marion is probably a better comparison, given Gordon's potential as a lockdown defender at the small forward spot. But I'll go Kenneth Faried -- unlimited energy, great rebounder and defender, but doesn't bring a whole lot to the table in a structured offense.

Draft projection
Early- to mid-lottery (fifth to ninth overall pick).

Sixers 2016-17 player evaluation: T.J. McConnell

Sixers 2016-17 player evaluation: T.J. McConnell

T.J. McConnell

Position: Point Guard

Status for 2017-18: Guaranteed -- $1,471,382

McConnell in 2016-17
Entering his second season as an undrafted free agent signing out of Arizona, T.J. McConnell was expected to be at the back of the Sixers' bench in 2016-17. With the team's signing veterans in free agency for the first time in a while, McConnell projected as the third-string point guard behind newcomers Jerryd Bayless and Sergio Rodriguez. If Ben Simmons was healthy, he could have been even further down the depth chart.

Obviously, things didn't go as planned. Bayless played just three games and Rodriguez dealt with injuries at times. That opened the door for McConnell, who moved into the starting lineup in mid-December. He seized the chance and held on for dear life, turning into a solid starting point guard and one of the bright spots on an improving Sixers team.

McConnell played all but one game this season and started 51 games, increased by 32 starts from 2015-16. In 26.3 minutes per game, McConnell averaged 6.9 points, 6.6 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals. He struggled from three-point range, yet his field goal percentage stayed about the same year-over-year (47 to 46.1 percent). The 25-year-old point guard became a leader and a spark to the team, leading the team's impressive January alongside Joel Embiid. He also provided perhaps the moment of the season with his game-winner against the Knicks (see below) and proved to be unshaken in the clutch.

The Arizona product had 13 games with at least 10 assists, including 17 in Boston in early January. He averaged 9.3 assists per game in January and finished the month with five double-digit assist performances in six games. McConnell impressed enough that, according to reports, the Cavaliers inquired about his availability in hopes of making him Kyrie Irving's backup on the defending champions. 

Signature games
There were plenty this season, so I'll offer two. 

First up is his first start. Bayless, Rodriguez and Joel Embiid were all out when the Sixers traveled to Detroit on Dec. 11. McConnell rose to the occasion with 12 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, just an assist shy of a triple-double in the Sixers' 97-79 win.

And the other signature game would, of course, be against the Knicks. He took just six shots and had eight points on Jan. 11 but his final shot was a big one, his game-winning jumper as time expired to beat the Knicks, 98-97. He also had seven rebounds, six assists and two steals in the home victory and produced a fist-pump for the ages in celebration at the end of the game.

Looking ahead to 2017-18
McConnell established himself as an NBA point guard in 2016-17, but he probably won't retain his starting role to begin 2017-18.

With Simmons and Bayless returning to health, McConnell will likely be relegated back to the bench, albeit in a larger role than the start of last season. His performance from his first start to the end of the year earned him a rotation spot assuming the Sixers don't spend big on one of the top point guards on the free agent market.

McConnell also has developed strong chemistry with each returning player for the Sixers, so he can fit in seamlessly as the point guard for any lineup. How he works alongside Simmons remains to be seen. His lack of three-point shooting could mean that he is forced to the bench when Simmons is in.

On McConnell
"The point guard in Philly, the kid from Arizona. He's a pure point guard, he makes their team better. ... [McConnell's] kind of overmatched in a lot of ways but he's smart, he's tough and he plays. He's a pure point guard, and there's still tons of value in that."

- Former MVP point guard Steve Nash

"He's a (Pittsburgh) Pennsylvania kid that nobody gave a chance and tripped on an opportunity with a program that's in the rebuild mode on my 17th point guard. You go through that massive volume of point guards and you have somebody that doesn't go away. … There's an injury, and so you give him the ball. He seized the moment, grabbed an opportunity and he ran hard with it. The preparation prior to that opportunity happening for him was A-plus. … To see him be rewarded, it's a great story."

- Sixers head coach Brett Brown after his shot vs. the Knicks

"He certainly represents everything that this organization represents and this city represents in terms of grit and tenacity and that fierceness that we’re looking for."

- Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo

NBA Playoffs: Nene, Rockets take 3-1 series lead on Thunder

NBA Playoffs: Nene, Rockets take 3-1 series lead on Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Nene scored 28 points on perfect shooting from the field, and the Houston Rockets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 113-109 on Sunday to take a 3-1 lead in their first-round series.

Nene made all 12 of his shots and had 10 rebounds. He helped the Rockets overcome an off night by James Harden, who finished with 16 points on 5-for-16 shooting.

Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each scored 18 points for the Rockets. Trevor Ariza had 14.

Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook had a triple-double by halftime and finished with 35 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists. The Thunder said Westbrook joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to claim three consecutive playoff triple-doubles.

Steven Adams scored 18 points and Victor Oladipo added 15 for the Thunder (see full recap).

Cavs hold off Pacers, earn sweep into 2nd round
INDIANAPOLIS -- LeBron James made a 3-pointer with 68 seconds left Sunday and the Cleveland Cavaliers hung on for a 106-102 series-clinching victory at Indiana.

James finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds as he became the first player under the current playoff format to win 21 straight first-round games. He also set a league record with his 10th career playoff sweep.

It sure wasn't easy. After taking a 96-83 lead with 9:29 to go, the Cavs found themselves in a 102-100 deficit with 1:31 left.

But James answered with the go-ahead 3-pointer and Cleveland sealed the win on James' free throw with 1 second left.

Lance Stephenson scored 22 points and Paul George added 15 but missed a 3-pointer that could have forced overtime in the closing seconds. It's the first time the Pacers have lost a series 4-0 in their NBA history (see full recap).

Thomas, Celtics top Bulls to tie series, 2-2
CHICAGO -- Isaiah Thomas scored 33 points, and the Boston Celtics beat the Chicago Bulls 104-95 on Sunday to tie their first-round playoff series at 2-all.

Boston blew a 20-point lead, but Thomas keyed a third-quarter run that put the Celtics back on top after Chicago briefly went ahead.

Gerald Green made four 3-pointers on his way to 18 points, helping the top-seeded Celtics return the favor in Chicago after dropping the first two games at home. Al Horford added 15 points and 12 rebounds.

Game 5 is Wednesday in Boston.

Jimmy Butler carried the Bulls with 33 points and nine assists (see full recap).