Gordon Hayward is currently playing at a Super Star level. Over the last eight games the Utah Jazz have gone 6-2 while missing some key players in Derrick Favors and George Hill for various games. They have been able to do this as Hayward is averaging 26.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and shooting 48.5% from the field through the same period of time. Only Karl Malone, Adrian Dantley, and Pete Maravich have averaged over 26.5 points per game in a Jazz season, and only 22 players in the history of the NBA have had seasons with those numbers. If Hayward were to continue this trend for the rest of the season, he would be the eighth leading scorer in the NBA, right ahead of Steph Curry, and just behind Kevin Durant.
Is this just a hot streak, or can Hayward actually keep this up for an entire season? Has Hayward, at 26 years old and in his seventh year in the league, taken the next step to become an elite NBA player?
Instead of going to Indianapolis to work out like he has in the past Hayward stayed in Utah all summer. In fact, the Hayward’s wife even gave birth to their second daughter, Charlotte, in Utah. Being closer to the team facilities all summer allowed him to work harder than he ever has before in an offseason. “Just talking with [general manager Dennis Lindsey] and [head coach Quin Snyder], and all of our coaches at season’s end, we talked about getting myself uncomfortable in workouts and really pushing myself,” Gordon said. “We talked about, where I want to be. Do I want to be where I’m at now or do I want to push myself next level? So the workouts had to step up a little bit.”
He certainly did step it up and has become on of the strongest small forwards in the league. The transformation of his body is evident as you compare a picture of him and Snyder in 2015 with a picture of him in the November 25, 2016 game against Atlanta this season.
The added strength has made the game seem visibly easier for Hayward, both offensively and defensively. The transformation to Hayward’s body is the first indication that this recent scoring outburst could be more than just a fortunate stretch of games.
While the attention has been on Hayward’s offensive game, and we will get to that, he has made huge strides on the defensive end as well. According to the lineup data at NBA.com, the Jazz’s defensive rating is significantly better when he is on the court than when he is off the court, which wasn’t true last year. This year the Jazz have a 97.3 defensive rating when Hayward is on the court, but allow a 105.2 when he is off the court.
I love this defensive sequence because it is simple, yet demonstrates a little bit of everything that Hayward is as a defender. Here he is guarding Andrew Wiggins, one of the more athletic scoring wings in the NBA. First Wiggins tries to post Hayward up, but cannot get any room in the paint as Hayward is the stronger player. Hayward follows Wiggins through two screens set by Towns before perfectly cutting him off before he can enter the paint. Hayward then gets his hand up to defend the jumper as the shot clock winds down. Wiggins is much more efficient in the paint than he is out of the paint, where he shoots below the league average at 37.8%, so twice in this play Hayward forced Wiggins back into an uncomfortable position using his strength or quickness. None of this was highlight reel material, but it was textbook defense, and that sums up Hayward’s defense this year.
Here Wiggins starts tries to post up Hayward again and gets pushed out all the way beyond the three point line. Wiggins tried to use his athleticism to create separation in the form of a step back, but Hayward stays with him every step of the way.
For a while now Hayward has been known as one of the better chase-down blockers. While Hayward is much more athletic than some tend to assume, he is so good at this because he doesn’t give up on these plays where many other players do. He is willing to run the length of the court even if the guy he is chasing has a couple steps on him.
After the win at home against Denver, and after Hayward had surpassed 30 points for the third time in a row, Snyder discussed why he is having so much success on the offensive end. “He added a comfort level on the post that I think is still going to improve. He’s shooting off screens, so he’s able to score multiple ways when someone takes something away. He’s able to have another option. The biggest thing Gordon’s been doing is he’s been defending and as a result he’s getting some things out in transition and getting some easy baskets.”
Coach Snyder addressed a bunch of things that Hayward is doing, so we are going to look at a couple examples of things he is doing that point towards an evolution in his game, not just a hot streak.
Working The Post
With his newfound strength and his 6’8″ frame, Hayward has begun to work in the post more frequently. According to NBA.com player tracking, Hayward has increased his post touches (touches that originate from a pass and reception within 12 feet of the basket) from 0.8 per game to 2.3. In these situations he is shooting 76.2%.
Currently Hayward is only shooting 30.8% in plays that he ends with a shot from the post, however, this is something that is totally new to him. Last year Hayward only posted his defender up on 2.1% of plays and is already up to 5.9% this year. As Snyder mentioned this could be something that he improves on and with his size and added strength it is easy to see why.
Here Hayward gets a mismatch that he wants with Emmanuel Mudiay in the post. Even though the entry pass is not particularly great, Hayward uses his length to calmly shoot over the point guard.
Shooting Off Screens
Hayward is shooting an effective field goal percentage1 of 57.8% in catch and shoot situations this year, which is up from last year’s 53.3%. As Quin mentioned, he is using screens more effectively this to get open looks. Below the Jazz run Danilo Galinari through two picks two get Hayward open. They first use a back pick from Trey Lyles to free Hayward, which sends him towards Gobert, who dishes the ball while picking Galinari one more time to give Hayward that extra second to get his shot off. Gobert is currently second in the league in screen assists, which is when an offensive player sets a screen that directly leads to a made field goal by that teammate.
Getting To The Basket
This year 24.6% of Hayward’s shots are coming from 0-3 feet of the basket, per Basketball Reference, up from 20.9%. Hayward is using an arsenal of moves to get to the basket. Here Hayward uses a pump fake after he receives the handoff from Gobert. The moment he sees that Ariza and Capela bite, he drives hard to the basket and finishes by putting Patrick Beverly on a poster. Currently averaging 1.1 dunks per game, Hayward has changed his mindset from the 2015-2016 season where he averaged 0.7.
One of the ways Hayward has been getting his dunks is simple back door cuts. This year, 9.3% of the plays Hayward finishes come from cuts to the basket, up from 3.9% last season. Here he simply catches his defender looking and sprints for the basket where Shelvin Mack finds him for the alley-oop.
Gallinari over commits to Ingles and gives Hayward a driving lane, which he takes full advantage of. What is nice to see in this play is the strong finish. From 0-3 feet, Hayward shot 62.2% in the 2015-2016 season. So far Hayward is shooting 68.3% from that range. The new strength has to be a big part of how he is finishing in traffic. Hayward has upped his free throw attempts to 7.1 on the season and is averaging 9.1 per game over the last eight games. This is a huge jump from the six per game last season that allowed Hayward to finish 13th in the league in free throw attempts. Hayward has a legitimate shot to finish top five in the league in free throw attempts this season with his new determination and strength.
Hayward shows the creativity that can make him special near the restricted area where he is shooting 64.7%, 5.7% better than last year. He seems to have spent a lot of time working on his timing. Last season he could often get caught releasing his shot on his down. He now seems to be using a variety of footwork so that he can go up strong and shoot at the apex of his jump.
Hayward’s decision making is the thing that was most often critiqued last year as he showed a tendency to turn the ball over as the defenses keyed in on him late in games. This year the swingman’s turnovers are down by 0.6 per game and his turnover percentage is down from 12.5% to 8.9%. Not only has he been less careless with the ball, but Hayward’s assist percentage is up slightly, from 18.2% last year to 19.3% this year. Hayward and George Hill have only played five games together, but it is a little surprising to see that Hayward’s usage rate is up to 29.1% of the team’s possessions when it was at 25.7% last year.
This year Hayward seems to be reading the defense and making the right play faster than we have ever seen from him. In the play below Hayward initiates a standard pick and roll with Gobert. Both Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza gravitate towards him and Ryan Anderson slides over to help stop Gobert so that Capela can recover. The instant that Hayward sees the play he knows where the open man is, and rifles a pass to Trey Lyles for the three.
Or in this one, Hayward passes the ball to Joe Ingles and pretends to head across court where he meets Gobert who picks Sam Dekker. Hayward slides out to the three point line and doesn’t hesitate before he pulls the trigger. Last year I remember frequently seeing Hayward similar space and hesitating. This year, his mind is already made up two plays prior. If he gets an open look, he is going to shoot.
This is my favorite play that demonstrates Hayward’s decisiveness and change in mentality. You can see the moment that Nene gets switched onto Hayward, he decides he is going to drive and score. Using his handle and sneaky athleticism, Hayward easily puts Nene on skates and gets separation with a beautiful step-back jumper that looks too easy.
Hot Streak or The Real Deal?
While it may not be fair to expect Hayward to maintain this current level of elite production that he providing the Jazz, all the signs point to this being more than just a hot streak. Hayward put in the work this offseason to change himself physically, has become a terrific wing defender, and is embracing a new mentality as the Star of the team. Getting a healthy Jazz roster will be key to Hayward maintaining this level of play. Every single night the opposing team’s number one goal is to stop Hayward. Getting a healthy Hill, Favors, and even Burks back helps draw some of the attention away from Hayward and make it easier for him to get his buckets on a nightly basis.
Hayward is currently playing at an elite level and my Salt City Hoops colleague, Thatcher Olson, took a look at what would have to happen for Hayward to be selected as an All Star. While it will be a difficult path, if he keeps producing like he is he would be deserving of a spot on the team in New Orleans in 2017. Hayward will face his biggest challenge yet on the December 8 when the Golden State Warriors come to Salt Lake City. Going head-to-head with Kevin Durant will certainly be a good test for Hayward and will be an exciting moment for Jazz fans. A win and a great game vs the Warriors would certainly bolster his All-Star resume.