Gordon Hayward is the best and most important offensive player on the Utah Jazz. In related news, the Jazz are one of the NBA's best teams, with a top-ten offense and top-five defense, partly because Hayward has shielded them from the endless wave of various injuries to key players like George Hill, Derrick Favors, and Rodney Hood.
Translation: Hayward deserves to play in his first All-Star Game this February. Yes, the Western Conference is once again overflowing with elite frontcourt talent.
But Hayward warrants a spot, not only because he plays for a very good team but because it would be silly not to include anyone who has roasted opponents as thoroughly as he has over the past few weeks. In Utah's last ten games, the 26-year-old is averaging 26.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. He's draining 47.8 percent of his threes and 48.5 percent of his overall shots.
On top of that, Utah's offense has scored 119.0 points per 100 possessions with Hayward on the court, a team high, and just 102.1 when he sits, a team low.
None of this appears to be a fluke (though the numbers are a bit cloudy thanks to Hayward not playing in Utah's loss against the Golden State Warriors on December 8). Since missing Utah's opening six games with a finger injury, he has been a furnace; only four players listed 6-foot-7 or taller cover more ground on a nightly basis. Under the weight of increased usage, a career-high 29.2 percent, Hayward has never posted a better PER, True Shooting percentage, or free-throw rate, and his lack of turnovers is unparalleled right now for someone who's responsible for that much offense. He's everywhere and does everything.
But Hayward's impact has long been perceived as an inch deep and a mile wide. He's a solid athlete at a valuable position, and it's difficult to identify any clear flaws in his game, but he isn't quite strong enough in any one area to be able to lift his team to relevance come springtime.
In some ways that's still the case. Hayward's shot chart reveals that he's right around league average all over the floor, and in an admittedly tiny sample size, he's only shooting 30 percent in clutch situations. His improvement in isolation, on the other hand, is nothing short of remarkable. According to Synergy Sports, last season he averaged 0.88 points per possession in one-on-one situations. Now he's up to an unstoppable 1.17.
That number is probably unsustainable, but it's still a quality that matters for a player who should be considered one of the game's better all-around offensive threats. How many guys can competently defend multiple positions and efficiently create shots for himself and others as a primary ball-handler?
Hayward's on-court demeanor is neatly symbolized by his unflappable head of hair. No matter how physical or aggressive or stressful a possession gets, each strand stays in place. He never panics. Just look at the play below, how he calls for a screen despite the shot clock rapidly closing in on zero.
Hannibal Lecter marvels at that relaxed poise.
Even though Utah is a tank, Hayward isn't behind the wheel enough to earn MVP consideration. He's less the primary face in lineups that feature so many like-sized weapons than simply the most skilled, an integral cog operating within an anchored motion offense filled with long wings who can shoot, pass, and drive.
In that sense, Hayward's value is replicated in Utah in a way it wouldn't be almost anywhere else. This isn't to say he's undervalued on the Jazz—there aren't many 6-foot-8 wings out there who can handle the ball, read defenses, get to the free-throw line, and knock down threes as consistently as he does—but this team won't be able to pay everybody.
If he stays in Utah beyond this season, Hayward could wind up as the best player on a conference finalist as early as next year, somewhat by virtue of playing on such a well-balanced team. He's that good. The Jazz would be foolish not to max him out for the next five years, but it's unknown how that would affect their long-term future, with Hood and Favors both in line to earn maximum contracts the following summer, and 30-year-old Hill still kicking as an above-average starting point guard Utah can't afford to lose.
And that makes his upcoming free agency so interesting. Hayward isn't Kevin Durant, but he's the next best thing: a do-everything stud who fills up the box score, plays both ends, and can comfortably fit within just about any ecosystem.
Everyone with max cap room should try and set up a meeting, but the most popular destination outside Utah has to be the Boston Celtics, where Hayward's college coach, Brad Stevens, is in charge.
How would Hayward's game translate to Boston's system, which similarly promotes a ton of ball and player movement but at a more up-tempo speed than the molasses track Utah casually glides over? With primary scoring responsibilities flowing through Isaiah Thomas, plus Al Horford and Jae Crowder opening up the floor in ways Rudy Gobert and Favors never could, "extremely well" would be a fair estimate.
Hayward could still run pick-and-roll action when necessary, but lessening the load would dramatically increase his efficiency, especially if he attacked more via hand-offs, cuts into space, and open shots off screens, much like how the Celtics currently use Avery Bradley.
Hayward is a natural off the ball, whether it's leisurely navigating picks on his way into the paint or juking his defender like a slot receiver before erupting above the rim.
He has the intelligence, strength, and carriage of a franchise player, and he's starting to accrue his numbers in a way most stars can relate to. The scariest part is that he probably hasn't reached his prime. This year's All-Star Game should be the first of many.
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