Gordon Hayward is probably not what you expect when you hear the words “NBA Star.”
Mostly, it’s his skin color and fact that he looks like he should be knocking on your door to discuss the Good Book rather than drilling contested three’s. Oh, and the fact that up until the past year or so, he appeared to be the love child of Casper the Ghost and a child from the Dust Bowl during the 1930’s (Mostly the so-pale-he-might-be-dead skin and lifeless hair).
Simply put, Hayward doesn’t look like someone who should be a dominant NBA player.
I would bet that he’s heard from plenty of dentists that he looks like he could be a basketball player based on height alone, but you know, not a good one. More like, “good high school player, decent college player, now plays ball at the Y on weekends” basketball player. Even in the NBA, how many non-Euro white wing players have their been in the NBA’s history? Take it a step further, how many have been genuine all-star level talents?
It isn’t so much racism to assume Hayward couldn’t be a force in the NBA, but more a genuine fact. This just doesn’t happen often. It’s the same reason Jeremy Lin never got offended when Madison Square Garden security members failed to recognize he was a member of the Knicks during Linsanity. According to every preconceived notion that we have about hoops, he wasn’t supposed to be!
Of course, Hayward’s rise to prominence is nowhere near as shocking, or prominent, as Lin’s was.
After all, it wasn’t a complete shock to see a white guy become a perimeter threat in the modern league. Steve Nash had won back-to-back MVP’s (I mean, that’s what the records say… doesn’t mention whether or not he should have won them) just five seasons before Hayward was drafted ninth overall by the Jazz in 2010. It just wasn’t nearly as common as say, the days of Bob Cousy and Pistol Pete Maravich (you know, when black guys couldn’t play).
And when it comes to prominence, Hayward has been anything but over his six seasons in the league. Part of that is the white-guy reverse racism that is tearing this country to shreds (jokes. I got jokes, people), but most of that is simply the fact that he plays for the Utah Jazz.
I mean, this is the team that was the primary rival of Michael-freaking-Jordan and was the home to probably the greatest pure point guard the modern game has ever seen in John Stockton for 18 seasons… and somehow has been completely erased from the Jordan-discussion while also masking some of Stockton’s greatness.
I’m convinced that Utah is a black hole. If it can’t create a memorable rivalry with the greatest basketball player of all time or carve out a lasting legacy for one of the best point guards ever, it has to be.
So no, you would probably not think that Hayward is an NBA star, but he is.
Oh, he is.
Gordon Hayward dagger: https://t.co/GsYQmaK1p3
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) November 6, 2014
The awkward, lanky Butler standout has evolved into one of the better wings in the NBA. Hayward’s always been capable of being an all-around offensive threat–he can shoot, score off the dribble, move off the ball, create for teammates and has the athleticism that would make White Men Can’t Jump a much shorter film.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) March 4, 2017
Hayward has been a great hybrid with a few flaws holding him back, mainly that he plays in Utah (black hole) and that he simply hasn’t done quite enough to be considered a superstar.
I mean, is averaging 19.5 ppg over the past two seasons really worth making a fuss over? And sure, he could do a lot offensively, but he lacked the size and confidence to consistently take it to the rim, which takes away a lot of his midrange and outside games. And defensively, Hayward’s slight frame meant that he would get mauled by a bigger wings like Blake Griffin and Carmelo Anthony, but he also lacked the foot speed to keep up with some of the league’s elite perimeter threats, like Jimmy Butler.
For the majority of his career, Hayward has been just a little short of being able to compete with the top-tier wing players in today’s NBA.
What’s changed is actually pretty simple: Hayward’s body and game have matured.
Now 27-years-old, Hayward is far from the lanky goof that he came into the league as. He now looks less like a middle schooler and more like Mr. Steal Your Girl.
Men, if you’re in the club and this man walks in, kiss your girl goodbye cause it’s a wrap.
Hayward has put together a career season this year, acting as a leader for a Jazz team that won 50 games for the first since 2010. While he’s been the main scoring option in Utah for the majority of his career, Hayward finally seems to actually be fitting the role this year.
This season Hayward has set career highs for points per game (22.0), field goal percentage (46.9), rebounds per game (5.4) and most importantly a career low in turnovers per game (1.9). And for those of you nerds that don’t believe in counting stats (or as Charles Barkley called you the people who ain’t ever get the girl and ain’t ever get in the game), Hayward also has career highs in true shooting percentage (59.4), player efficiency ratings (22.1) and win shares (10.3) too, so HA.
Hayward’s game has made a big jump, with much of it stemming from his newfound confidence when attacking a defense.
Hayward has really benefited from the emergence of Rudy Gobert as an All-NBA caliber center.
Gone are the days when the Jazz were shackled to the Stieffel Tower on offense, where he used to sit on the low block and snag offensive rebounds… and that’s about it. Gobert has become the focal point of the Jazz offense, setting on and off-ball screens every possession to help free up Hayward and company.
I know Hayward gets waved around as “The White Guy That Can Dunk”, and he’s definitely an above average player when it comes to pure athleticism, but he doesn’t have the quickest of first steps. That can make it difficult for him to consistently get around quicker wing defenders. Gobert gives him just enough of an edge on those types of players where he can get an advantage and become virtually impossible to defend.
Gobert is simply too good at setting screens for most defenders to try to fight over, like Andrew Wiggins does below, and Hayward is able to sneak around and create a mismatch with the opposing teams center, this time played by poor Gorgui Dieng. Dieng doesn’t commit to coming out to defend Hayward, he recognizes it and pulls up for the jumper, two points for the Jazz.
Try to trap him and he’s good enough (and big enough) to pass out and find Gobert streaking towards the basket, where he can attack and cause havoc. Dieng and Wiggins attempt to do just that below, which leaves Gobert open to attack my beloved Ricky Rubio, who is forced to foul.
Go under and…well don’t go under.
Gobert has become one of the best screen setters in the league, currently sitting at second in screen assists behind only Marcin Gortat (who has John Wall, which is like taking steroids if your goal is to lead the league in screen assists) at 6.1 per game. In other words, a Gobert screen directly results in a Jazz bucket about six times every game, a fairly remarkable number considering that Gobert would be averaging 14.1 ppg, 12.8 rpg and 7.3 apg if screen assists were counted as normal assists.
How many players have averaged those numbers before, you ask? Well, you’d have to go back to Wilt Chamberlain (’67 and ’68) and Oscar Robertson (’62). Only those were the days when the game was played at a much quicker pace, creating more possessions and therefore more stats. After all, you don’t find it odd that Wilt averaged 50-25 the same year Oscar got his triple-double? So really, it hasn’t been done in the modern game
To be fair, it probably would have if screen assists were counted like this, which they should be. I mean, why on earth shouldn’t they be? Why are we not allowed to change traditional statistics? Count screen assists as normal assists and give out assists for made free throws, with only a half an assist being counted if only one free throw is made. Heaven forbid we get the most accurate information possible.
Alas, I digress.
Hayward and Gobert have become a genuine force offensively, particularly since the all-star break. Over the past 22 games, Hayward has shot 47.7 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from deep, fueled both by the pull-up trey’s above as well as his catch-and-shoot ability.
According to NBA.com/stats, Hayward is shooting his second-highest effective field goal percentage (field goal percentage adjusted to consider the fact that 3-pointers are worth one more point that 2-pointers) ever off the pass, currently sitting at 56.2.
Utah’s 2017 campaign has largely been plagued by health issues, particularly when it comes to starting point guard George Hill.
After getting sent to Utah from the Indiana Pacers as part of the Jeff Teague deal, Hill has played in only 48 games this season. Still, though, the Jazz have gone 32-16 in those games and looked like a completely different team offensively. Hill simply runs the offense at a higher level than Dante Exum or Jinglin’ Joe Ingles (as Utah’s announcers have nicknamed him, which is the very definition of bullying but hey it sounds the same, so we cool), and the Jazz are +12.6 when he, Gobert, and Hayward are on the floor together.
For a man that can seemingly do it all, Hayward has had teammates throughout his career that can’t seem to do anything. Compared to Alec Burks and Enes Kanter, Gobert and Hill look like the second coming of Stockton and Malone.
If Hill can be healthy for the playoffs and Gobert can remain his dominant self, Hayward becomes a fascinating matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.
In Utah’s previous meetings with LA, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers mostly used Mbah a Moute on Hayward, with Chris Paul occasionally switching onto him. Moute struggled to keep up with him on screens, putting DeAndre Jordan in the position of either coming out to defend him (thus leaving Gobert to attack the rim) or sit back on Gobert and hope Moute can recover in time (thus leaving Gordon wide open).
Shockingly, DJ opts to stick to the paint, leaving Hayward to take his time, gather, make a cup of tea, gel his hair, steal your girl and eventually get around to making a 15-footer.
While the threat of Gobert throwing down a hammer insures the switch-happy Clippers can’t move Jordan onto Hayward, they’re more than happy to do it whenever they get the chance to. That means he will be getting plenty of looks against Griffin and Mo Speights.
Those are the types of matchups that Hayward will have to exploit if he wants to be considered one of the league’s premier wing threats.
The Clippers series is maybe the first chance he has gotten to be a genuine star in the NBA. Finally, Hayward will get an opportunity to show his pick-and-pop dropping, fast-break starting, off-ball cutting, all-around offensive perfection to a national audience.
If nothing else, at least the nation will be exposed to the man’s hair and get to collectively ask the same question: How on earth does he get it to stay?