A signifying play during last year’s preseason against the Portland Trail Blazers served as proof Gordon Hayward was ready to take another step toward stardom for the Utah Jazz.
The 6-8, 225-pound wing took a dribble hand-off from Trey Burke on the move, used a screen from Trevor Booker and then drove hard to the right before crushing a two-handed dunk on late-arriving, help-defending center Joel Freeland.
Though the poster wasn’t the indicator. Hayward caught several bodies his first four seasons in the NBA.
It was the strength in which he completed the highlight-reel play, and the primal yell in Freeland’s face which followed that put the rest of the League and Jazz fans on notice they were going to see a different—and better—version of the 2010 lotto pick from Butler during the 2014-15 season.
Hayward is making his debut at No. 35 in the SLAM Top 50 due in large part to the level of play that followed the remainder of the season, which was a catalyst in Utah’s 13-game improvement in the win column from the previous year, and his legitimate potential to be an All-Star this season.
Buzz around Hayward’s candidacy as one of the NBA’s best small forwards began to pick up steam when he showed up for Team USA’s FIBA World Cup Tryouts during the summer of 2014 with an extra 15 pounds of muscle. While he was one of the last players cut from the 12-man World Cup roster, Hayward demonstrated why the added strength was necessary in the process of him proving himself among the NBA’s elite with the Jazz.
He averaged 19.3 points, 4.9 boards, 4.1 assists and 1.4 steals a game in his second season as a full-time starter. The Jazz got off to a rocky start as they adapted to first-year head coach Quin Snyder’s principles on both sides of the ball, but were able to find their stride toward the middle of the season and finished 38-44.
Hayward’s role on the court for the Jazz last season wasn’t much different from the 25-57 campaign in 2013-14 in that he was relied upon to score from all three levels on the court, create for other teammates off the bounce and guard both wing positions on defense.
Though his stats from two years ago don’t quite reflect it (16.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.2 apg), Hayward was significantly more effective in his jack-of-all-trades role last year with his increased mass allowing him not to get bumped off drives nearly as much and enabled him to become a better finisher in the paint and an even better defender.
If you watched Hayward his first four seasons, he looked like a versatile player who was trying to figure out where he belonged in the League, almost inconspicuous outside of Salt Lake City.
Last season, he played like he belonged among the best. Whether it was talking shit after dunking on someone, letting a ref know they blew a call—or more importantly—asserting himself on either end when his team needed him most during crunch time, Hayward was the man for the Jazz and played like he knew it for the first time in his career.
Despite the fact the NBA has the Jazz on national TV only six times (three games on NBA TV) during the regular season, the Jazz should be one of the most intriguing teams to watch even without point guard Dante Exum who tore his ACL competing with Australia this summer.
Hayward’s progression toward becoming an All-Star is a big reason for that intrigue as a large part of his game is making his young, talented teammates look even better thanks to the attention he draws from the opposition.
His versatility on both ends of the court has shown marked improvement each year he’s been in the NBA, and he turns only 26 in March.
The Jazz haven’t been in the Playoffs since 2012 when the Spurs dispatched them in a first round, with a four-game sweep.
Though most analysts and diehard NBA fans don’t have them pegged as a pre-season title contender, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the Jazz are in the thick of the race for one of the eight post-season spots in the West during April with Hayward flexing his game.
|SLAM Top 50 Players 2015|
Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2015-16—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.