Known for his gritty, lockdown defense and his deadly perimeter shot, Arron Afflalo’s game is still evolving. And at only 26 years of age, there’s no limit on how far that evolution will go.
He’s earned both high school and college All-American honors. He’s been named the Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year. He led his school to back-to-back Final Fours. And most recently, he’s one of the NBA’s most improved and fastest rising players.
From Compton to Westwood
Maybe Arron Agustin Afflalo was destined for basketball at birth.
Arron was born on Oct. 15, 1985, to Benjamin Afflalo and Gwendolyn Washington at the UCLA Medical Center — mere minutes away from Pauley Pavilion, where he would play his college basketball some 18 years later. But it took only a year before Arron’s love affair with the sport began to blossom.
Gwendolyn said her son was infatuated with basketballs from infancy.
“From the time he was 1, that was all he loved,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I couldn’t go to the grocery or anywhere. I’d try to avoid the aisles with balls. Aaron had boxes and boxes full of balls by the time he was 2 or 3.”
Naturally, Arron grew up in Inglewood as a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. He also grew to become an especially big fan of another Inglewood native -- Lakers guard Byron Scott. Arron fancied Scott’s game so much, that when he went to UCLA, he picked Scott’s famous No. 4 to wear on his own back.
Arron’s home court moved to Compton as a teenager when he took up residence with his father. It was during these years that Arron’s interest in sports -- particularly basketball -- developed into a dedicated passion. Arron would regularly wake up his father in the wee hours of the night to spot him while he lifted weights. He lifted so actively that he trimmed down to less than six percent body fat.
His motivation and personal drive were no surprise considering his father’s background. Born to a single mother of five children, Benjamin’s youth included a stint in boarding school. He eventually served four years in the Air Force, where Benjamin said he learned personal accountability. He passed the trait on to his son.
"My Dad, he always cared unconditionally, and everything he approached me with was real, in a sense," Arron told the LA Times. "He's always honest with me. He never catered to me. He never pushed me. Everything he did was just purely out of love, and just real. There was nothing false about anything he did in my life. He didn't tell me something I didn't need to hear because I wanted to hear it. Because of that, I always stayed grounded and always stayed humble. I don't think I ever changed."
In high school, Arron’s work ethic began to bear fruits on the basketball court. He averaged 26.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and five assists per game as a high school junior, leading Centennial High to the CIF SS Div. III-A title game. In the process, he earned numerous Player of the Year honors, including the Wooden Award’s Div. III Player of the Year. His success led to a spot at the sixth annual USA Basketball Youth Development Festival in Colorado Springs, Colo. There, Arron led the West squad to a bronze medal while averaging 15.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists.
Arron fared even better as a senior, as he led Centennial to a 32-3 record and its first-ever Div. III CA State title while averaging 23 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. His game earned Arron not only more local recognition, but made a name for him across the entire country, culminating in a spot as a starter in the 2004 McDonald’s All-American game.
Meanwhile, Arron was drawing interest from a bevvy of college basketball powerhouses — and not solely for his basketball prowess. In addition to his hoop success, Arron excelled in the classroom and recorded an impressive 3.5 GPA at Centennial. But despite plethora of offers, Arron couldn’t turn down the offer that came from closest to home, courtesy of Ben Howland, and he committed in April of 2003 to become a UCLA Bruin.
A New Bruin Legacy
Arron was the first player Howland signed at UCLA after leaving Pittsburgh.
What better way for the new coach to endear himself to begin his UCLA tenure than by signing a Los Angeles native and McDonald’ All American?
“Arron is a classic two guard," Howland told USA Today. "I'm excited about his toughness and how he plays the game so hard and aggressive, yet so skillful. He's a good passer and shooter who does a good job of putting the ball to the floor and getting to the basket."
The coach eyed AA as the type of recruit the Burins would need to become a national title contender again, according to the Daily Bruin. He turned out to be right and Arron wasted no time proving it.
Despite being a true freshman, he started in all 29 of UCLA’s games during the 2004-05 season and averaged 10.8 points per contest. The freshman was the Bruins’ best marksman, shooting at a 38.7 percent clip from deep, beat on the team and 10th in the Pac-10. Perhaps most impressively, Arron established himself as a shutdown defender at the collegiate level and was named the Bruins’ Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
Arron’ freshman season earned him a spot on the Pac-10’s All-Freshman team as well as a Honorable Mention Freshman All-American honor from Rivals.com. He didn’t slouch in the classroom either, and was named to the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll in the spring of 2005.
A breakout freshman, Arron blossomed into a star as a sophomore. As UCLA’s leading scorer, Dijon Thompson departed for graduation, Arron stepped right into the lead guard role, topping UCLA in scoring at more than 15 points while also averaging over four rebounds per contest. He scored in double-digits in 34 of UCLA’s 39 games on the way to being named First Team All-Pac 10.
It’s not often when one can say a team’s leading scorer may have made his most significant impact on the defensive end, but that’s exactly what Arron did as he led the Bruins to a berth in the National Championship game. As the Bruins rolled through the NCAA Tournament, Arron shut down opposing stars Ronald Steele (Alabama), Adam Morrison (Gonzaga) and Rodney Carney (Memphis). His defensive presence earned AA as spot on the Oakland Regional’s All-Tournament Team. He was also named a fourth-team All-American by Scout.com.
As Ramona Shelbourne of the Los Angeles Daily News wrote, “Afflalo is UCLA's leading scorer. He's the guy the Bruins turn to when they need a basket. But he's also the guy they turn to when the need a stop.“
“That's a job I really relish. I love that job,'' he told the Daily News. "I love the challenge.''
With Arron’s help, the Bruins reached the National Championship game in 2006, but fell to the powerhouse Florida Gators. The loss pushed Arron and in his junior year he rose to the challenge in even bigger fashion.
Not only was he again named a member of the All-Pac 10 team, he was named the Conference Player of the Year. Despite being the Pac-10’s third-leading scorer, Arron earned the award because he exemplified the polished skillset of a complete player.
"If you truly have a love and passion for the game, then you should work at every aspect of it, not just the part that gives you [attention], that being scoring,” Arron told the Los Angeles Times. “That's what separates teams and players."
He also earned consensus All-American honors as he averaged 16.9 points per game and shot 37.5 percent from beyond the arc. He saved one of his best performances of his career for the right time, scoring 15 of his 24 points in the second half against Kansas to propel UCLA to its second-straight Final Four appearance.
The Bruins would bow out in the national semi-finals, but not before Arron finished sixth in the voting for the Wooden Award for the nation’s best player. After the season drew to a close, AA eventually announced he would forego his senior season and head to the NBA. He finished his collegiate career as UCLA’s 17th all-time leading scorer and owner of the second-most three-point baskets made in school history.
Headed to Motor City
"The decision wasn't easy," Arron told the Associated Press of his choice to forego his senior year at UCLA and enter the NBA Draft. "I did this for my personal growth, my happiness and where I felt I should be as an individual, what can get me to compete and be the best basketball player I can be."
As difficult of a decision as it was for Arron — particularly because he’d come so close to achieving his goal of bringing another national title to UCLA — it’d be hard to argue it was the wrong one. As a two-time first-team Pac-10 selection, Arron felt he was ready for the challenge associated with playing at basketball’s highest level in the NBA.
Initially pegged as a second-rounder, Arron impressed teams during pre-draft workouts and his stock shot up. Detroit Pistons general manager Joe Dumars couldn’t help but fall in love with Arron’s prospects for NBA stardom after seeing the way he starred at UCLA. Dumars was particularly fond of Arron’s versatility as a defender.
“He’s a flat-out tough guy,” Dumars told the Los Angeles Daily News. “He’s a warrior. He’s a big-time scorer. I don’t think UCLA has the success they’ve had the last two years if he’s not the leading scorer, leading that team. I like the fact that Afflalo has been on that big stage, and he knows what it’s like. He’s not going to be intimidated.”
When his team came up at No. 27, Dumars made Arron a first round NBA draft choice and a Detroit Piston.
After functioning as a feature guard his final two years at UCLA, Arron admits that he had some difficulty adjusting to a new role with the Pistons. Though he averaged just 12.9 minutes per game as a rookie, his best performance of the season proved to be vital. He scored a then-career-high 15 points against Miami in late March to help seal a fourth-straight Central Division Title for the Pistons.
But in staying true to form, Arron deflected credit to his teammates.
"I'm out there with four All-Star-caliber players, so they aren't going to be paying much attention to me," he told the Associated Press. "I hit a couple shots early and that let me get comfortable."
Though Arron’s role increased in his second year in Detroit, he remained largely underutilized at 16.7 minutes per game. Still, he showed signs of a breakout as he shot over 43 percent from the floor and better than 40 percent from distance, earning the respect and praise of his teammates.
"He understands that he may not play a lot of minutes, but the minutes that he does get, he's going to come in and take advantage of them," Allen Iverson told mlive.com. "He's come in and given us a spark at both ends of the court."
A Mile High
Following his second season, Detroit sent Arron and Walter Sharpe to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.
The Nuggets were thrilled to add a player of Arron’s caliber to their team.
“Arron is a proven NBA defender with an incredible work ethic,” Denver Vice President of Basketball Operations Mark Warkentien told NBA.com at the time.
Arron was largely an afterthought in Detroit’s rotation for the first two years of his career, starting only 17 games. But in Denver, he quickly impressed and carved out a niche for himself, appearing in all 82 regular season games while starting 75. With more opportunity came bigger numbers. In his first season in Denver, Arron connected on a career-high 43.4 percent of his 3-pointers, while nearly doubling his scoring average.
His potential revealed itself throughout the year, but it was on Jan. 25, 2010 against Charlotte that AA broke out. He scored a new career-high with 24 points and did so in remarkably efficient fashion: 9-of-11 field-goal shooting, including 6-of-7 from 3-point range.
"I was just trying to find a good rhythm in shooting and I've got to thank my teammates for that, creating all the plays," Afflalo told the Associated Press. "I'm just out there trying to make shots."
Arron had struggled for two years to find a fit with the Pistons in Detroit, but by the end of his first year in Denver, he’d found a home with the Nuggets.
Denver coach George Karl locked him in as a starter in his second year with the Nuggets and Arron rewarded the move. He averaged 12.6 points per game — the first time he averaged double-digit scoring in his NBA career — and became further known throughout the league as a three-point marksman, drilling more than 100 trifectas for the second-straight season.
As the Nuggets developed a different look with the departure of superstar Carmelo Anthony, Arron emerged at the forefront of the franchise’s new generation. His performance in Denver’s 121-120 comeback win against Dallas on Feb. 10, 2011, just 12 days before Anthony was traded to the Knicks served as an unofficial passing of the torch.
With Carmelo on the bench and Dallas leading by one with 19.6 seconds left, Arron assumed the role of go-to guy. Once Chauncey Billups found him, he shook Shawn Marion and drilled a game-winning 19-footer at the buzzer sending the Pepsi Center into a frenzy. Arron Afflalo had arrived.
"I've hit some big shots before, but never have I made the game winner at the buzzer," he told the Associated Press.
"I'm really, really happy for him," Billups told the Associated Press. "When I see the way he works on his game, day in and day out, and finally reap some of the benefits of that, it makes you proud."
It was a long time coming, though — simply a result of consistent hard work that was born out of Arron’s childhood fascination with the game of basketball.
After the 2010-11 season, Denver rewarded Arron in the form of a five-year contract. And again, Arron made the Nuggets look smart. He averaged a career-high 15.2 points per game, but it was in crunch time that AA elevated his game. He led Denver’s charge to a playoff berth by averaging 19.1 points per game during the month of April while shooting 52.8 percent — an astounding number for a guard. The Nuggets won 10-of-14 games in April to clinch the sixth position in the West.
“My role, my influence and leadership on this team is different. Each year it gets better,” he told NBA.com.
It was just another step in what has been a pattern throughout Arron’s life — constant growth.
Following what was perhaps the best season of his career, Arron was all set to take the next step in Denver.
But his path took a twist on August 10, when AA was included in the four-player deal that sent Dwight Howard to Los Angeles, Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia and Andre Iguodala to Denver. Arron was the centerpiece of the package that went back to Orlando for Howard, one of the game's elite players. As they shipped off their star, the Magic sought a collection of young players on the rise and Arron fit the mold to a tee.
"We love his mindset, love his toughness, love his penchant to compete every day," Magic General Manager Rob Hennigan told Sports Illustrated. "We really feel that he's someone who can set the tone for the organization and help set the tone for the culture and the kind of work ethic and mindset that we want the players to embody. I just really like his makeup.”
Despite planting some solid roots during his three years in Denver, Arron was thrilled with the move. He spent the rest of the offseason working on being a more complete player and entered 2012 Magic Training Camp with a fresh outlook on the coming season and a new chapter in his career.
"It's definitely a new day. I'm very happy and appreciative of the opportunity to be there and represent that city to the fullest," Arron said. "I plan on being the best player I can be, period. I'd love to continue to grow as a person and as a player offensively and defensively. Personally I don't think there's a better place to do it at this time than Orlando."