Clippers put ball in Eric Gordon's hands

LOS ANGELES -- No one handed Eric Gordon the ball or called his name in the huddle.

There was no actual passing of a torch or changing of the guard.

A week and a half ago in Utah, he flat out seized the moment.

He took the reins of his team's offense with one of the more dazzling 12-second sequences you'll ever see.

After rallying the Los Angeles Clippers in the fourth quarter, Gordon drove down the lane and threw down a ferocious dunk to tie the score with 6.2 seconds left.

On the next play, he hounded Utah Jazz guard Deron Williams into taking a tough shot, rose above the All-Star and emphatically blocked his shot to send the game into overtime.

Though the Clippers eventually fell in double overtime, it was clear something important had happened.

Eric Gordon had arrived.

For two seasons, he has been the team's budding young star: tough, athletic and overflowing with potential -- everything you'd want in a future cornerstone of your franchise. He was even polite -- sometimes to a fault.

"The only issue we ever had with Eric is that his aggressiveness level wasn't commensurate with his ability," general manager Neil Olshey said.

"A lot of that had to do with the roster we had when he was first drafted. We had all these older guys. Cuttino Mobley, Marcus Camby, Baron [Davis], Brian Skinner. Eric and Al Thornton were two of the only young guys and Eric was the kind of kid who would step back and let the veterans lead the way.

"His numbers were good, but it was how he was getting them. He was too passive, it was too many catch-and-shoots."

This season Gordon waits for no pass. The ball is in his hands.

"[Former coach Mike Dunleavy] kind of felt like Eric was a 2-guard and he needed to improve his ball handling," Olshey said. "I think [new coach Vinny Del Negro] came in with a clean slate and just knew he was a great player.

"One thing Vinny has historically done, at least in the two years he was in Chicago, is put the ball in the hands of his best player. He did it with Derrick Rose and he's doing it with Eric now. I think he's been empowered by that trust, and the rest of the team has kind of embraced it too."

The Clippers never doubted Gordon had the ability to lead their offense. It was always seen as a matter of time and maturity. And with Davis as their point guard, they chose not to rush Gordon into that role.

It was intended as a protective measure, but in some ways it backfired as Gordon tinkered with the form of his jump shot, tried to become more of a catch-and-shoot perimeter player, and seemed to lose some of his aggressiveness and confidence in the process.

"The past two years I've always been catching and shooting," Gordon said. "I didn't have the ball in my hands that much. It's been an adjustment and I'm still getting used to it, but I like having the ball in my hands and making a good plays."

It didn't help that the Clippers lost 116 games in his first two seasons. He was frustrated and down. He questioned himself, because that's what good players do when their best effort doesn't translate into wins.

"It's been pretty tough," said his father, Eric Gordon Sr., who coached him until high school and still sends his son a text message after every game.

"Growing up, you're used to all the accolades and winning all the time. So this has definitely worn on him.

"My middle son [Evan Gordon, who plays for Liberty University] lost a game Sunday against Notre Dame and I said to him, 'Just imagine, you lost today and your team is now 1-1. Your older brother EJ, in the last two years his team has lost just about 100 games. How would you feel about that?'"

The losing was tough on Eric Gordon, but it didn't break him.

He returned home to Indianapolis this summer determined to improve his game and fitness.

He hired a strength coach to supervise his workouts. He ran at least four miles three days a week and spent two to six hours on the court every day.

In July he was invited to try out for Team USA but was seen as a long shot to make the team that would play at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey.

"Nobody expected me to make it," Gordon said. "But I just went out and worked hard every day to try to make that team. That's the thing I had on my mind the whole summer.

"I really, really wanted to make that team."

Gordon survived the first cuts after a minicamp in Las Vegas, and Olshey flew to New York to watch him compete in the training camp before the final round of cuts.

"I was in New York at the practices watching him and him going against Rose, going against [Rajon] Rondo, going against
[Russell] Westbrook," Olshey said. "And the validation that came with not only making the team after most people thought he was a long shot to make it, but he became their sixth man, defensive stopper and best 3-point shooter, was huge for him.

"This summer really helped him. He now understands that he's as good as any guard in this league and it doesn't matter if he's playing with Baron Davis or [rookie] Eric Bledsoe, he needs to attack the game the same way and not defer to other people."

The question the Clippers will have to answer is whether Gordon can continue to be as aggressive and assertive once Davis returns from a knee injury that has kept him out of the lineup most of the season.

Gordon has spoken openly about wanting to shift from shooting guard to point guard. But he wasn't gunning for Davis' job or trying to undermine his role with the team.

"I like having the ball in my hands and making a good play," Gordon said. Simple as that.

It's clear he is not afraid to step into big moments.

"I have a tremendous amount of confidence in putting the ball in his hands," Del Negro said.

"It's something that he wants, and he should. He's a good enough player to handle that. The last couple times the game has been close, it hasn't gone our way. But I don't lose a second of sleep about putting the ball in Eric Gordon's hands. I feel good about that and I think the whole team does.

"He wants the ball and he's going to get it."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.