Aaron unreliable at the end of games

Rarely in the past few years has the atmosphere in the U.S. Cellular Arena been as palpable as it was with 35 seconds left in regulation Sunday afternoon as the Milwaukee Panthers tried to finish off their archrival Green Bay Phoenix. The Horizon League match-up was tied at 82-82 when Panther scoring machine Jordan Aaron took control of the ball and drove for a game-winning basket.

Not only did the game-winning shot attempt never come, but Aaron had dribbled into three defenders at the elbow and then off his foot to give Green Bay a hail mary shot at winning the game in regulation. They didn’t convert, but it didn’t matter as the Phoenix took advantage of Milwaukee miscues in the extra period and walked away with the victory.

It was the seventh time that Jordan Aaron has found the ball in his hands with the opportunity to be the savior of the game, and it was the seventh time he failed to deliver on the final possession.

That is no small sample size. Seven games is almost a quarter of a season, of which Jordan Aaron is in his second of two in Black and Gold.  The Panthers guard is an electric player and can go blow for blow with the best players in the country, but at the end of the game, there’s no doubt about it: you don’t want him to have the ball in his hands.

He’s too short. At 5’9″, Aaron is one of the smallest starting guards in the Horizon League. Many players at the mid-major level lack the height so Aaron’s problems are mitigated somewhat, but not in the Horizon League, where the game is essentially the same bruising style played in the Big Ten at a lesser skill level.  

Sunday, Aaron made the decision to take the ball to the elbow with the hope of finding a way to make it into the basket. The problem is the elbow area had three Phoenix players, and Green Bay has some bean stalks. Alec Brown has something like 16 inches on Jay-O, and Green Bay has several players that approach a foot height differential to Aaron – it makes any contested jump shot an adventure for the senior guard, something you want to avoid with the game on the line.

And every shot Jordan takes at the end of the game is going to be contested. Why do we know this, you ask?

Everyone knows he’s going to shoot. There wasn’t a single person in the arena on Sunday that thought Jordan Aaron was going to do anything but try and make it happen himself.  After all, he had been doing it much of the game, and when he gets confident, boy does he get confident. The same was true on December 7th last season when Jay-O lost control of the ball on his way to attempt the game-winner against Northern Illinois. Luckily the Panthers won that one, just as they did when Aaron missed two three-pointers – both contested – against IUPUI only 11 months ago.

The fact of the matter is, Jordan Aaron can score. He can score in some pretty entertaining ways, and he is extremely frustrating to watch most of the time because you know he can score, he knows he can score, and you know that he knows he can score, so he’s going to try and do it.  He’s like the guy you invite to your poker game because you know he’s going to call everything as long as he wins a couple hands first.

The biggest problem here is that when you have tall guys – and last time I checked, college basketball teams have not abandoned this fad – and you know where the ball is coming from, it makes the play extremely easy to defend.  If he didn’t have it dead set in his head that he has to take the final shot, he may have been the hero by passing out of the three defenders to a wide-open Austin Arians, by far Milwaukee’s best three-point shooter.

He is best when he has no immediate deadline. There is no doubt that if you need a basket, Jordan Aaron is the guy on Milwaukee’s roster who can create it in the biggest variety of ways. He can hit the deep threes that Kaylon Williams and Ricky Franklin used to hit. He can drive the lane and kick out to a shooter. He can find a mid-range jumper or take it to the basket and put up the most ridiculous circus shot and have it go in at a mind-boggling percentage.  But ask him to do it at the end of the game, and the buzzer is where you’ll find him putting up the shot – or turning it over.

This isn’t a knock on Jordan as much as it is a recognition of his biggest strength – he is completely unpredictable. When you replace a very important variable with a constant – when will he strike? – you make the situation infinitely more manageable.

When I say completely unpredictable, I don’t mean as a trend. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that if Aaron makes a few shots, he’s liable to take several more. I mean it as in one possession. With a 35-second shot clock, Aaron can score in those myriad of ways and he can do it from anywhere between 30 seconds on the shot clock down to the buzzer. Hand him the ball and ask him to score the game-winning or game-tying basket? He’s timing it to get there with a bright red LED and a horn to go with the swoosh of the net.

It takes a big chunk of the unpredictability out of his game. Instead of dealing with a guy who can score six different ways at six different points in the shot clock, now you’re talking about a guy who can score six different ways at one point in the shot clock: zero.

So when Jordan Aaron took the ball with 15 seconds left on the clock in regulation, all five Green Bay players had the same thing in their heads: here is the shooter, we have a tremendous height advantage, and we know when he is going to shoot.  All we need to know is where.

It’s why it doesn’t matter how good the team is. Green Bay looks to be the best team in the Horizon League today. They are certainly better than Youngstown State, who also kept Aaron from getting off the game-tying shot on January 19th last year.

There’s a case to be made he shouldn’t even be on the court in the final two minutes except in free-throw situations.

In two seasons, Aaron is 8-for-35 from the field in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime. That 23% shooting percentage is better than he is from outside the arc, 3-for-19 (15.7%).

His ball handling ability is played up as the number one reason he shouldn’t be giving minutes to Cody Wichmann (a better shooter), but he has had 14 turnovers to nine assists in the final two minutes and overtime. He also has been putting opposing players at the line, fouling 16 times in that time frame, although the number is skewed somewhat by the fact that in close games with the team down, he has had to foul to get the ball back in Milwaukee’s hands.

The numbers aren’t all bad. Five steals isn’t a terrible number and ten rebounds is a much better number than you’d expect for a guard his size, but his real value at the end of the game is at the free-throw line. In 2012-13, he was 18-for-22 from the line. This season, he is 24-for-29. Both numbers are great, the kind of numbers that leave me no doubt that he should be in the game when the Panthers have a slim lead to protect at the line. But put the ball in his hands at the end of regulation? I think the sample size is large enough to prove that he isn’t the guy in that instance.

Take Sunday for example. Sub out Aaron for Cody Wichmann, a player who can spot up shoot from anywhere. Put the ball in Steve McWhorter’s hands instead, and what do you get? A driving McWhorter could find Wichmann for a wide-open three – the Green Bay coaches know about Wichmann but it’s doubtful that the scout on Milwaukee devoted much, if any, time to him. Maybe he finds Tiby or Kelm open in the post as Greg Mays or Alec Brown abandons them. He sure as all get out would have found Arians for the game-winner.

If the end of the game comes and Aaron finds the ball in his hands, he has to find a way of re-establishing some of his unpredictability. He has to change it up and start attacking the basket sooner than the final ticks of the clock. There’s no way a cagey player like Kiefer Sykes was going to be fooled on Sunday, but if he scouts himself and identifies his weakness at the end of the game, there’s still a chance he can be the guy with the ball in his hands on March 11th.

It’s just a matter of becoming something he hasn’t been so far for Milwaukee at the end of the game.


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