The Utah Jazz are not a horrible basketball team. They aren’t great, either. They’re fine. Okay, if you will. Another solid squad in a good conference that has a roster that may or may not pay off huge for them down the road. For them, in this specific season, however, the key to everything seems to be Gordon Hayward.
Hayward, who became famous for his exploits in the NCAA Tournament while with Butler, has always been a guy who is at the center of social media fodder. Is he a max-player? Do we only value him because he is, you know, white? Can he be an elite star?
The first question is rather easy to answer. Given that the NBA’s salary structure has vastly changed, pay that man his money. In fact, we spend too much time trying to correlate a player’s worth on the court with their contracts as is. We should have reached the point where we collectively realize that a guy’s salary isn’t always going to match his level of talent. Sometimes, more often than not, a max-player is merely a good player on a roster who needs to keep good players around.
Whether or not you view him in higher regards because of the color of his skin is something I won’t speculate on. I don’t know you. Not personally, at least. It is safe to say — thanks to social media’s shining examples of Jimmer and Stauskas — that white players often get a certain benefit of the doubt others don’t, but Hayward is leaps and bounds better than those guys, and it isn’t even close.
We can discuss how good he is, though. That’s something we can measure to at least some degree.
Hayward came into the NBA rather young. Only 25 now, his first few seasons in the league can be described best as his learning-curve years. While is second season in the pros showed a vast improvement, it wasn’t until year three that the Hayward hype train began to pick up steam.
His last two seasons, not including this one, were even better. His production on the offensive floor went up, his efficiency remained solid, and he started to contribute in areas — rebounding and passing — that he failed to provide the Jazz in seasons prior. Things were looking up, which is why many expected him to become a legit superstar.
The thing is, that superstar phrase is tossed around a wee-bit too casually. Guys like LeBron James, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, and a few others are ultra-excellent. They are freak-ish in their awesomeness. Players like them are the type we will tell our grandkids about while drinking hot chocolate in the wasteland that is Earth after the alien invasion of 2025. Hayword is clearly not them.
Nor is he as good as the next tier of great NBA guys. Hoopers like Jimmy Butler, the reemerging and downright filthy Paul George, as well as Kawhi Leonard are some examples.
Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. The guys all listed above, plus the few not mentioned, are game-changing types of players. Truly game changers. Not only in weird hyperbolic name, but in actual on-the-court performance. Their teams are all vastly better with them on it to the point that taking them off those rosters would be like trying to stop dancing cold turkey when your jam comes on.
Examining this specific season, though, Gordon Hayward has mostly continued to progress or, at least, remain about the same. Unfortunately for Utah, there’s also been instances of his looking like a deer in headlights and even overwhelmed at times — as his 4 points, -42, and truly nothing positive outing during Utah’s game against San Antonio on Monday night highlighted.
Elite stars don’t have those games. Rookies do. Bad players do. Solid-to-good players, as well. Super-duper-stars… nope.
That said, Hayward has been good this season. Everything looks good. 18 points, five boards, and three assists per are all more than respectable. So, too, are his efficiency numbers — as he is shooting a solid 44 percent from the floor, with an effective field goal percentage of 50, and is making over 42 percent of all his attempts from distance.
Not a single one of those numbers are bad, but they aren’t jaw-dropping either. In fact, his field goal percentage is the second worse of his career. He’s also only scoring (so) slightly less, and not getting to the free-throw line as often. Meaning, while none of this is alarming, we have likely reached peaked Gordon Hayward. He’s unlikely to get measurably better moving forward.
So what do we have, then?
Probably a guy who is a very good player, that third-tier level of star, but should and could never be a team’s — one who aspires to win titles — best player. A comparison for this, and while Hayward isn’t as good as this guy was in his prime, would be a Ray Allen type. Especially Allen later in his career. Hayward would be a tremendous fit for Utah (or other teams) if he were not the team’s actual best player or a guy they expect to be.
There’s more good news, though. It comes with Utah’s roster. It is balanced enough, with enough youth on it, that they might only be that one “better than Gordon Hayward” player away from being the type of team who would battle for a top-four seed in the West. That’s meant as a sincere compliment. How they go about getting such a dude is beyond me, and is certainly not obtainable by way of trade, and it has little to do with their season the rest of the way, though.
Regardless, Utah has themselves a fine player in Hayward. A very, very good one. Not quite Joe Flacco-elite, but certainly not a guy whose salary and ability would cripple the franchise moving forward. For the rest of the 2015-16 season, however, if the Jazz want to remain competitive, Hayward can’t afford to have games like he did on Monday night.
It is the position Utah is in, and they put themselves here by their own design. To have Gordon Hayward be the star that drives the ship to success. Even if he isn’t actually that (yet/ever/?), all of Utah’s potential success hinges on him driving it as if he were.