As the Jazz sit smack dab in the middle of the Western Conference, look no further than their seventh year forward, Gordon Hayward, to carry the offensive load.
Teams across the NBA landscape take to heart the phrase "stars win championships." If you take a glance at the list of the teams that won an NBA title— outside of the 2004 Detroit Pistons — each title team has had at least one elite top 10 level player on their roster. Obviously, no one player can win a championship on his own, but you get the point — teams need a collection of stars or at least one star to win championships.
The search for that prime talent can evolve in a variety of fashions — from obtaining top picks in the draft, to throwing large sums of money out via free agency, to even the trade market — and each team crafts a precise strategy around the ability to land one of the top players in the sport. Where things currently stand today, it appears the Jazz are taking an alternate route, making the bet that they can develop top 10 talent from within.
As the Jazz sit smack dab in the middle of the Western Conference at 7-6, look no further than their seventh year forward, Gordon Hayward, to be that player the Jazz are banking on developing into an elite level, top 10 talent. Hayward has taken significant strides of improvement each of his first six years in the league. When he first entered the league back in 2010, he was viewed as a skinny wing project that had notable holes in his game. After years of redefining his body and sharpening up his hoops IQ, Hayward's current game state can often be viewed as a thing of beauty. One thing that pops out on the screen is Hayward's ultimate command out on the court — he has an exceptional feel of the game, knowing exactly where everyone needs to be and what everyone needs to do.
Hayward's do-it-all game blends in perfectly with the Jazz's versatile team. He is one of the few wings in the league that is relied on to be the primary creator of the offense, taking charge of the playmaking duties. It's not often you see a player of Hayward's stature — 6 feet 8 inches tall and 235 pounds — controlling the court with the ball in his hands. Hayward has only played one game this season with newly acquired point guard George Hill, who has had to sit out of the last six games due to a sprained right thumb. However, when they did share the court together in New York against the Knicks, they played 69 percent of the minutes together (33 minutes in total), posting a net rating of 10.6. Look for the Jazz's recent offensive woes — only averaging 94.8 points per game with Hill out of the lineup — to bounce back once he returns.
After experiencing injury issues of his own, Hayward smoothly reinserted himself into the lineup after sitting out the first five games of the season due to a break in his left ring finger. Since his return, Hayward has struggled with his shot, only shooting 40 percent on the season, but he has found other ways to impact the game on the offensive side of the ball. Through seven games, Hayward is currently averaging 20.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists, while shooting a scorching 95 percent from the free throw line. His free throw attempts are a shade down in terms of attempts from the last two years, where he averaged 6.0 and 6.1 attempts respectively. This year he is shooting 5.7 free throw attempts per game, hitting 5.4 of his attempts, which currently sits at a career-high mark.
The video below displays a perfect example of how Hayward's game has evolved. Hayward is pressured at the top of the key by a formidable wing defender in Nicolas Batum. As Batum pressures Hayward with his body, Gordon uses his own body to his advantage, shedding the tight airspace with excellent footwork and finishing the play off with an acrobatic finish plus the foul.
Here is another example of Hayward as the primary ball handler, shedding defender Lance Thomas in a pick-n-roll situation. Note how well Hayward uses his body to his advantage, displaying excellent body control and footwork, resulting in the make plus a free throw opportunity. Hayward will continue to be relied on heavily as Hill remains sidelined due to a sprained thumb.
Through his first seven games of action, Hayward has struggled with his perimeter shooting, hitting only 22 percent of his three-point attempts (9-40). When Quin Snyder and his staff trot out the lineup featuring the front line of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, floor spacing becomes very tight. The Jazz can negate the lack of spacing by hitting outside shots. Check out these two clips below, in which Hayward is the primary ball handler and he uses Gobert's massive frame to free him up on two, off-the-dribble three-pointers.
Having a mammoth in Rudy Gobert helps free up space, making Hayward's looks a tad cleaner. If Hayward can get his three-point shots going, plays like the ones above will free up the overall landscape of the court. It's no secret the Jazz need Hayward out on the court. In his 252 minutes played this season, he currently sports a (plus 10.6 ) net rating when he is out on the court, according to NBA.com. Conversely, when Hayward sits, the Jazz have a net rating of (minus 0.5) per 100 possessions in 372 minutes. As the Jazz battle within a very tight Western Conference — hoping for their first playoff appearance since the lockout-shortened 2011 season — it's evident right now that they need every ounce of offensive juice they can get, and it all starts with Hayward.