As we near the start of the 2014-15 season, the current iteration of the Jazz franchise that’s centered around youth and potential will be looked at to move their way out of their current spot in the Western Conference cellar. While the additions of potential stars Rodney Hood and Dante Exum will be key facets to the future of the organization, the fate of one of the organization’s most popular players stood as perhaps the most important aspect of Utah’s off-season.
Of course, the player in question would be Gordon Hayward, who faced restricted free agency after spending the first four seasons of his career under the Utah Jazz microscope. While there was a bevy of interest in Hayward from other NBA organizations, it was the Charlotte Hornets who gave Hayward a mighty four-year, $63 million dollar offer sheet, which was quickly matched by the Jazz.
By entering the upcoming season with that massive new contract in his possession, the pressure that surrounds Hayward has been elevated. While he’s always been looked at as one of the bigger keys behind Utah’s rebuilding process, Hayward transition to being the team’s highest-paid player will make him the focal point of Utah’s rebuilding process.
While his newly elevated contract will put a lot more pressure on his shoulders, Hayward has actually held the role of the team’s main offensive weapon since the departure of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap during the 2013 off-season. Transitioning to that new role appeared to be an extremely difficult task for Hayward, as he struggled to maintain any real consistency on the offensive end.
When you examine his offensive downfall during the previous season, the largest factor is his regression as a perimeter shooter. Prior to his time as the team’s main scoring option, when he was able to work alongside the likes of Jefferson and Millsap, Hayward was looked at as an elite perimeter shooter. During his first three seasons with the Jazz, Hayward was able to shoot 40% from beyond the arc, which eclipsed the likes of Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza and Joe Johnson.
In the 2013-14 season, that consistency wore off as Hayward’s three-point shooting percentage deteriorated to an extremely pedestrian 30%. Perhaps the biggest reason for that drastic drop in consistency pertains to the fact that Hayward rarely got an opportunity to get an open shot. As the team’s main offensive weapon, defenses were able to regularly zone-in on Hayward without having to worry about the consequences of leaving Millsap and Jefferson.
With the majority of defensive pressure now focused directly on him, Hayward had moments where he seemed tense, which ultimately lead to some rough looking perimeter jumpers. While he’s a pretty athletic player that can penetrate his way towards the paint, Hayward still tends to struggle when it comes to being able to get separation from the opposition, mainly because of his less than stellar abilities as a ball-handler.
Those issues should be diminished as Hayward will have the opportunity to play alongside recent draftees Rodney Hood and Dante Exum, which would take away some of the offensive pressure that has rested on his shoulders. When he’s able to get an opportunity to work off-ball, Hayward definitely has had an ample amount of success when it comes to cutting to the paint. During the prior season, Hayward shot 58% from the restricted area, which would be the best percentage of his young career.
On the defensive end, Hayward was consistently able to showcase a veteran focus, which allowed him to become a pretty solid perimeter defender. While he does struggle to create separation of the offensive end, Hayward has enough lateral quickness to stick close to the vast majority of wing players, whether they would be penetrating to the rim or moving around the perimeter.
In pick-and-roll situations, Hayward is still able to remain effective because of his ability to quickly determine whether to go over or under the on-ball screener. While he does occasionally have mental lapses which ultimately allow the opposition to get an open look at the basket, he generally does a great job when it comes to quickly recovering from those instances.
With Hayward making the transition from a rookie deal to being one of the higher-paid players in the league, the pressure will definitely be elevated. While he probably won’t be looked at to immediately push the Jazz into the playoff hunt, Hayward will still be the veteran leader to the slew of Jazz youngsters. Even though he displays that certain level of confidence that you look for in a veteran leader, the inconsistency that he showcased during last season is still a cause for concern.
However, the additions of Hood and Exum combined with the potential improvements of Derrick Favors, Trey Burke and Alec Burks should help take away some of the pressure that Hayward had during the previous season. With that in mind, Hayward will still be looked at as the undeniable “go-to guy” in the Jazz offense, putting him into some high-pressure situations during the upcoming season. It’ll definitely be intriguing to see if he’ll be able to work under that heightened pressure and help lead the Jazz organization into the future.