Gordon Hayward’s Shooting %s: A Fleeting Dip or a Worrying Trend?

January 13th, 2014 | by Matt Pacenza
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Hayward’s shooting percentages are down since taking on a bigger load. What does that portend for the rest of his career? Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Looking ahead to the 2014 offseason, the Jazz will face two decisions critical to their future: who to draft and whether to sign young wing Gordon Hayward.

Hayward is a player many Jazz fans adore. His game has grown over his first four years, as he’s improved his rebounding, passing and defense. He won’t turn 24 until March. His next contract will almost certainly cover his “peak” seasons.

So why not sign the young and improving Hayward, no matter what offer the Jazz have to match? (Hayward will be a “restricted” free agent this summer.)

The area of Hayward’s game that has to give one pause is simple: his shooting. Before we go any further, let’s look at a few numbers.

Season Age FGA FG% 3PA 3P% 2PA 2P% FTA FT% PTS
2010-11

20

4.1

0.485

1

0.473

3

0.489

1.3

0.711

5.4

2011-12

21

8.9

0.456

2.4

0.346

6.5

0.496

3.5

0.832

11.8

2012-13

22

10.7

0.435

3.4

0.415

7.3

0.444

4.1

0.827

14.1

2013-14

23

14.5

0.415

3.8

0.317

10.7

0.451

4.6

0.829

17.1

A pretty clear story, no? Hayward’s scoring has grown, but, unfortunately, at the same time, his percentages have decreased, particularly this season.

Let’s boil that data down to two numbers: Usage Rate, the number of possessions a player uses per 40 minutes, and True Shooting Percentage, a shooting metric that accounts for free throws and 3-pointers. Let’s look again:

Hayward

Again, an increased role, accompanied by a worrisome shooting decline.

When I’ve mentioned this decline in Hayward’s shooting numbers to friends, nearly all of them have said the following: The reason he’s not shooting as well is because he’s being asked to do more. Defenses are keying on him, so naturally his percentages are going down. He’ll adjust, and mature, they say, and the numbers will improve.

This column will attempt to see whether that hypothesis is true: Are the dip in Hayward’s a numbers a natural step for a young player being asked to do more — or a worrisome harbinger of a lack of progress to come?

One way to posit an educated response to that question is to look at other players who went through similar growing pains. After those early shooting struggles, how did those players subsequently fare?

To look for such players, I ran several queries using Basketball Reference’s Player Season Finder tool. I first limited the search to post-1997, in an arbitrary effort to capture the modern game. I also limited the research by excluding players who immediately excelled or were critical to their team’s offense from the start. I also excluded players whose numbers were below average: Plenty of them see their shooting get worse, and they leave the league. The goal was to find players like Hayward: Young wings with average to above-average overall numbers whose shooting numbers stagnated or worsened as their role grew.

You’ll note that the tables below are divided between the players’ first four years and second four, and include how much they were paid during that second four. I’ll go through them chronologically:

 Mobley  Mobley, an undersized shooting guard with good three-point range, didn’t show much progress in his game throughout his career. He was a decent shooter, but numbers never really improved beyond OK, and he contributed little else. His career doesn’t tell us much about Hayward, a much more versatile player, and perhaps most importantly, a younger player who is more likely to improve.
 Marion Younger NBA fans may not think of Marion as a wing, but he played SF for most of his early career. He was a terrific and versatile young player, one of the best defensive players in the league at his peak, and has remained a valuable contributor into his mid 30s.His career arc is probably the most promising one for Hayward on this list. His shot did improve and he became an All-Star at his peak, a key contributor to Suns teams that won 60+ games. Most relevantly, he signed a huge contract after his fourth year – and was worth every penny.
 QRich  Richardson’s best years were his first two, unfortunately. He had a few other decent seasons, but up-and-down defined his entire NBA tenure. At his best, he was productive, but never found consistency, and injury and conditioning issues marred his peak years. He later became a three-point specialist but never even hit 40 percent in a season and was out of the league by 32.
 Crawford  Crawford is not much like Hayward, but his growth as a shooter in his mid to late 20s should provide hope for Jazz fans. One of the NBA’s ultimate instant offense guys, Crawford shot poorly enough at first that his future was in jeopardy, but his efficiency improved and he had his finest years in late 20s and early 30s. Now 33, he remains a key cog on a winning team with the Clippers.
 Jefferson Ha! Meet the Jazz’ other starting wing. He’s actually a pretty good comp for Hayward, if not quite as versatile, but perhaps a better defender. And, promisingly, his shot did improve as he aged.However, to be frank, he doesn’t really belong on this list. (I just had to keep him on.) His shooting numbers look like they weren’t progressing because of a poor fourth season, but he only played 33 games that year before injuring his wrist and the following year they continued to improve as they had before.
 Iguodala One of the NBA’s most unique players, Iguodala began his career as a freakishly athletic wing who got most of his points near the rim. (Hence the very high initial TS%.) As he aged, he’s become one of, if not the best, defensive stoppers in the league, while slowly extending his range. He’s never become a great shooter, but offers good passing, plus great defense, and in sum is a very valuable player.His game is unique enough, and his defense so superior, that it’s hard to compare him to Hayward, but Iggy’s career demonstrates that a player can be worth well upwards of $10 million without ever becoming a consistently deadly shooter.
 Gordon  Sigh. It’s almost hard to remember now, but Gordon was projected to be a perennial All Star, when injuries to his wrist and knees intervened. All of his numbers have declined, and he’s now seen as so over-paid that he’s rumored to be on the trading block. If you’re an optimist, you’ll note that he’s only 25 years old, that he’s played every game for the Pelicans this year, and that his numbers are slowly improving. There may be another act to Gordon’s career.

So what did that exercise teach us? First, it’s difficult to find young, decent wings whose shooting numbers decline in their first few years. A significant number of the players I first started with – players like Peja Stokavic, Jason Richardson and Paul George – became better shooters as their usage increased, not worse. That fact is at its heart worrisome for Hayward: It’s rare for a successful player in his early 20s to get worse at a core skill and then go on to have a productive career

But the list above shows us there are a few who bucked that trend, even as those come with obvious caveats: They were great defenders or shotmakers (Iggy, Marion, Crawford) who increased their roles because their gifts were obvious. Or they were hit by injuries, like Jefferson and Gordon. Or, unfortunately, their careers soon stalled and petered out, like Mobley and Richardson.

If you’re an optimistic, you can look to players like Marion, Jefferson and Iguodala, who improved significantly in their mid-20s and ended up being worth the big money they were paid. More pessimistic fans can find counter-examples.

As with so many big decisions, this one will come down to money. The Jazz are rumored to have offered Hayward somewhere around $11-12 million a year for four years. If his numbers stay low in 2014, will another team come in much higher? How will the Jazz respond?

It’s a difficult decision, and history provides only a partial guide. What’s clear is this: If Gordon Hayward improves to the point where’s a consistently reliable shooter, he’ll be bucking the trends.

Matt Pacenza

Matt Pacenza

When he isn't writing about the Jazz, Matt Pacenza is an environmental activist, Arsenal fan and world-class blowhard about many matters. A native of upstate New York, with a background in journalism and nonprofits, Matt lives near Liberty Park with his wife and two sons.
Matt Pacenza

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3 Comments

  1. Aaron says:

    Nice finds. As soon as you mentioned the trend of more usage and worse shooting numbers, Cuttino Mobley was exactly who came to mind. Certainly Hayward has a little more to his game, but the pattern is really troubling.

  2. Justin says:

    For what it is worth Hayward’s shooting numbers have improved each month this season though the .415 peak of December aint what we hope for. So I guess the question is do the 5 Rs, 5 As, 1 B, 1 S, 1 3pt, 4 FTs,17 points, and all around game make up for the shooting percentages as is or if they further decline? Too bad he got injured as he started 14 on fire for 3 games. Was that possibly a sign of him adapting to his role and finding comfort with Burke and crew? What’s his value if comes back shooting .604 fg% and .643 3pt%? What is his value if his career numbers of .442 fg% and .382 3pt% actually indicate where how he will shoot? As a fan I say keep him, as a couch GM I say see where his numbers go as the season plays out.

  3. Moe says:

    Interesting. However, I’d also like to see what the numbers were for the great ones too. Say…Larry Bird? Michael Jordan? Elgin Baylor? All of these great players did a heck of lot more than just shoot. I agree with the previous post — the Jazz should evaluate Hayward on his overall contributions, not just a drop in his shooting %. Rhetorically, how many 6’8″ players are in the NBA today who can pass & share the ball as effectively as Hayward? I haven’t seen many. If his teammates were better shooters, he’d probably be the only forward averaging double figures in APG!!

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