During the preseason many of us get caught up in the hype of younger players.
“Could Tevian Jones be an immediate impact player?”
“Can Da’Monte Williams take the sophomore leap?”
“Can the Illini play extended three point guard lineups with Andres Feliz?”
Senior role players are often an afterthought. They are known quantities. They aren’t exciting. Many of us, myself included, pushed Aaron Jordan to the side during the preseason.
But once the games start, we are reminded of how fun it is to watch seniors play with unparalleled passion and unselfishness. There are very few college basketball players who have the same love and pride for their university that its students and alumni had. Aaron Jordan is one of those players. And he was one of the most important players on the 2018-19 team, and will forever be remembered fondly. Thank you, AJ.
By the Numbers
By almost any metric, his senior season was his best season, which is how every four-year player would want it. Jordan started in 31 of 33 games after only starting 13 games in his first three years on campus. Jordan initially started at small forward, but with the struggles of Kipper Nichols, he eventually slid over and played a majority of his minutes at the four. A tall task in the Big Ten for a 6-foot-5, 210-pound guard. But that’s what makes Aaron Jordan special; he was willing to do whatever it took to help the team win, and to try and be the best at it, even if it’s not the role he initially had in mind.
Jordan averaged 8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.4 blocks in 27 minutes per game this season — all of which are career highs. He was the second-leading rebounder on the team, and leading defensive rebounder at 3.3 per contest. Jordan was unquestionably the team’s best, most active and most consistent rebounder. That statement is a testament to his effort and passion, and those are those things will certainly be tough to replace next year.
Jordan shot 41% from three on 4.3 attempts per game. He just nearly edged out Trent Frazier for the best 3PFG% on the team. That percentage makes it two straight seasons in which Jordan shot over 40% from three. He was the only real consistent three and D player that Illinois had on it’s roster this year, which is why it was tough for Underwood to manufacture lineups without Jordan on the floor this season.
That statement is backed up by the advanced numbers, which love AJ. Jordan led the team in Box Plus/Minus (5.7) and Win Shares (2.5). His Box Plus/Minus is a whole point higher than the next closest Illini (Ayo Dosunmu, 4.6).
His only downfall this season came on two point field goals. He reverted to his freshman and sophomore seasons and shot 27% from inside the arc on 2.4 attempts. His shooting percentages and efficiency came down greatly from his junior season.
AJ Junior Year: 47% 2PFG, 46% 3PFG, 84% FT, 64% True Shooting, 60% eFG
AJ Senior Year: 27% 2PFG, 41% 3PFG, 78% FT, 53% True Shooting, 50% eFG
Impact on the Illini
We’ve touched on it quite a bit already, but Jordan was this team’s senior leader and role model. He showed young guys how you can be one of the most important pieces on a basketball team without necessarily being a star. That you can make an impact on winning even if you’re not getting shots, or if you’re in a slump. This is hopefully something guys like Tevian Jones and Alan Griffin soaked in from Jordan this season.
Jordan increased his shooting range and provided spacing for the Illini guards to operate in on offense. But Jordan’s biggest impact came on the defensive end. He was the Illini’s best and most consistent defender for most of the season. There have been very few Illini in recent years who have been a joy to watch play defense and rebound. Jordan was one of those guys this year.
Jordan played with a tenacity that no one else even came close to playing with. This isn’t something I thought I’d be saying at the beginning of the season, but I’m very concerned with replacing Aaron Jordan next season. The raw counting numbers can probably be replaced, but his effort and attitude will be sorely missed.
Luckily, he’ll still be here as a grad assistant.
AJ’s Best Game
Jordan had plenty of impactful games and moments down the stretch, but his best all-around game came in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in South Bend against Notre Dame.
Jordan had a career high 23 points on 5-of-7 shooting from three point range. Jordan also topped his season average with five rebounds. He also collected an assist, steal and two blocks before fouling out in 35 minutes. The Illini came up just short on a Trent Frazier three-point attempt at the buzzer, but Aaron Jordan’s first-half performance gave the Illini a chance to make the late comeback, which Jordan helped to spark with a layup and made three.
The Quick and Dirty
Aaron Jordan may not have reached the ceiling that many had set for him as a four-star recruit out of Plainfield, but if you asked him, he’d say he had a great college career. And I’d have to agree.
It’s too bad we have to send off another four-year senior without an NCAA Tournament appearance. I really hope that never happens again. The emotion that Jordan left his senior night with was full of raw pain and love. Something every Illini fan can relate to.
Aaron Jordan didn’t play much under Groce, and sacrificed a lot under Underwood by playing a majority of his time at power forward. He eventually became that 40+% three point shooter that we expected him to be, and he turned himself into a tenacious defender and rebounder.
At the end of the day, Illini fans will look back fondly on Aaron Jordan’s career. Not necessarily because of the results on the court, but because of the connection he made with the fans and alumni simply by loving the university and the colors with that same unique, loyal ferocity.
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