Utah Jazz Do It Again: Gordon Hayward Emerging

Justin KeyCorrespondent IJanuary 2, 2011

NEW YORK - JUNE 24:  Gordon Hayward stands with NBA Commisioner David Stern after being drafted ninth by  The Utah Jazz at Madison Square Garden on June 24, 2010 in New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

Boos reigned down on NBA draft night from the nosebleeds to the seats of the affluent. Utah Jazz fans were outraged, and for good reason.

Why waste a lottery pick on a guy that’s rail thin and isn’t built for the professional game? The Jazz had just been to the Western Conference Semifinals the year before, and already had arguably the best guard in the league, a future Hall of Famer.

But they did it anyways, sounding something like this:

“And with the 16th overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, the Utah Jazz select John Stockton out of the University of Gonzaga.”

(If you are unaware of how that pick turned out, borrow someone’s Google machine).

Well, the draft geniuses in Utah may have done it again.

Thanks to Isiah Thomas’ days in New York, the Utah Jazz used a draft pick they acquired from the Knicks when they traded for Stephon Marbury in 2004.

Yes, that’s right. Stephon Marbury affected a professional basketball team that isn’t in China, and Americans actually cared—well, those in Utah did.

Everybody knew Carlos Boozer was predictably out the door heading into the 2010’s free agency period. He may have had his bags packed as long as three years before that—some Jazz fans will argue so. To add injury to insult, Mehmet Okur ruptured his Achilles tendon the April before, and no timetable was put on his return, disallowing a guarantee that he’d see time this year. Basically, the starting front line for Utah was nonexistent heading into the summer of 2010.

But there was that lingering draft pick, which turned out to be the No. 9 overall selection—much thanks to another dismal season from Spike Lee’s Knickerbockers.

After the first eight picks, Jazz fans saw the names remaining on the board that could address their lack of size: Ed Davis out of the University of North Carolina, Cole Aldrich from Kansas, Larry Sanders out of Virginia Commonwealth.

Bigs were still available. But…

After a stellar performance in the NCAA Tournament last spring, General Manager Kevin O’Connor used the pick on another potential baby-faced killer. The Jazz drafted Gordon Hayward out of the University of Butler.

Negativity poured into Energy Solutions Arena when David Stern made the announcement. The boos resonated like J.J. Redick had just walked into Chapel Hill.

Twenty games into the 2010 season, the boos turned into frustration, and the frustration into anger. The picks seemed to be wasted, especially by an organization that is known to harvest diamonds from manure piles.

Before his career could really start, Hayward’s minutes were cut three games into the season, and he broke double figures only twice in the month of November, logging three DNP-Coach’s Decisions.

All the undergraduate concerns surrounding the scouting reports were becoming a professional reality. He can’t guard anybody. He’s too thin and brittle for the NBA. He’s not fast enough.

December didn’t begin too brightly for the 20-year-old rookie, either. After playing a total of three minutes in the first two games of the month, the baby-faced Hayward received consecutive DNP’s at home.

Midway into December, Mehmet Okur returned from the inactive list to play for the first time in eight months. Okur’s second game back saw Jerry Sloan delegate Hayward to the inactive list instead of the only other rookie on the Utah team, Jeremy Evans.

D-League whispers brewed but never materialized.

Instead, intervention happened. The rigid Sloan made a different kind of coach’s decision on the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Sloan called Hayward’s name for the first time all night. Hayward had played all of two minutes the game before in a route of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So what was Sloan thinking when he put in a rookie with the Jazz down 12 points on the road? If asked about it, he would probably answer it in an old-fashioned and unsatisfying way, lending praise to his coaching staff’s insight to a player who was barely contributing a full bucket in 11 minutes a night.

But Jerry Sloan knows. What is it that he knows? Who can really say?

But when the clock had finally ticked its last tock, the Jazz were up by five points. Hayward capped the win with a thunderous dunk, plus the foul.

Hayward’s final state line: five points, three rebounds, three assists, 12 minutes of play and all headlined by pure hustle.

It was the perfect Christmas present for a struggling rookie whose former Butler team was in Hawaii, enjoying the holiday in the sun while whooping up on Washington State in the Diamond Head Classic.

After the holiday, Sloan went back to Hayward in the final period the very next game. The rookie logged only four points in 12 minutes on 0-4 shooting from the field in an embarrassing home loss to the Portland Trailblazers.

Then fate happened. As the Jazz were heading into a road game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Jazz’s available roster thinned out. Andrei Kirilenko and Okur were out with back issues, C.J. Miles with the flu. Just when it looked like Hayward could be reburied in the rotation, his name was again called by Sloan.

In his fifth career start, Hayward’s first half was lacking and uninspired. as he missed all four shots he attempted.

In the second half, however, Hayward exploded for 17 points and knocked down three 3-pointers, hitting six of his eight field-goal attempts. The Jazz walked away with the road victory, riding the backs of Hayward and Al Jefferson.

Since the rookie’s breakout game at the Staples Center, Hayward has scored in double figures in two games, scoring 11 and 13 points, respectively.

Not only has Gordon Hayward changed the Jazz community’s perspective on him as a player, he’s also revealed the high basketball IQ everybody was talking about on draft day and deceptive athleticism.

Hayward explodes to the basket like people would not believe. When he’s gone to the rim with aggressiveness, he’s finished with elevation that most people are unaware of. While that may seem exaggerated, it is not.

The rookie has also shown a knack for finding the basketball. Hayward’s only averaging 1.8 rebounds per game through 28 games this year. But in the last three games, Hayward is averaging almost five rebounds a game and making impressive plays on both ends of the court.

Only averaging 3.4 PPG on the season, Hayward is averaging almost 14 points and over 33 minutes in his last three games.

An increased role and production from Hayward also allows the Jazz much more flexibility with the February trade deadline looming. Not only has Gordon Hayward’s trade value gone up—not that the Jazz would over-entertain an offer that wasn’t extraordinary—but it also maximizes any reasons the Jazz may have to move Kirilenko’s bulky contract. It’s easier to make a move knowing you’ve got an ace in the hole.

Only time will reveal Hayward’s true worth as a lottery pick. But looking at Utah’s draft record and his recent play, it’s hard to believe that he’s without potential to be a very special player.

His skill set is broad and versatile, with the ability to handle and distribute the ball. His stroke is sweet, and his basketball IQ is uncanny.

The Utah Jazz may have just mined another diamond.


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