Sometimes I like to think of myself as a somewhat objective Jazz fan. While I’m certainly no Andy B. Larsen, Ben Dowsett, Dan Clayton, or any of the other fantastic advanced-analytics-based Jazz fans, I like to think of myself as well-versed enough in some advanced analytics that I know that FG% and points per game don’t tell the whole story (as much as Kobe Bryant might wish they did). I’d like to believe that numbers help inform (confirm?) the eye test, and that it helps to keep fandom practical and objective.
And, yes, numbers are important. Numbers are very good, in fact! And I’m going to use them in this piece. But what’s happening right now is so much more than numbers for me—I’m getting EXCITED. Specifically about Gordon Hayward, and generally about this team. It’s been YEARS since I’ve been able to say that, but this team is genuinely interesting to me to watch—even better, FUN to watch—and it’s all starting with Gordon Hayward’s incredible play so far this year1. So, for a few moments, I’m going to be the excited fan girl whose team is finally—FINALLY!—fun to watch again. It’s a breath of fresh air after the last few years.
Through 12 games, what are some stats, and how do the stats compare to last year?2
Through 12 games last year, we were 1-11; this year, we’re 5-7.
We’ve witnessed two thrilling, game-winning shots at the buzzer within a 10-day period. Hayward’s game-winning shot against the LeBron’s Cavs was especially fun.
We’ve played more games on the road than any other team in the league so far, and we’re 2-5. That record, even, has been deceiving, as we were close in several of the other road games we lost, which couldn’t be said last year. Considering how poor this team has been on the road for the last decade, I’ll take these improving numbers on a young team. While 2-5 might not seem respectable, for this team, I think it is.
This year, we won our second game of the season on November 5 (to go 2-3). Last year, our first win came after 8 straight losses; the second win was against the Phoenix Suns on November 29.
Last year, the second road win came December 11 against the Sacramento Kings. This year, the second road win came against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on November 14.
One of the things great teams do is win on the road. We haven’t been a great team in a long time. But for the first time in quite a while, I’m seeing life in this team on the road—a tenacity and fight that’s been missing.
Playing with the pass has been SO much more exciting as a Jazz fan. I’ve actually been engaged in the game for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s been thrilling to see the progress. Yes, the games have some cringe-worthy moments, but that’s expected with a new team, a new coach, a new system, really young players (Hi, Dante!), but we’re seeing progress. We’re seeing improvement. What’s been surprising is that we’ve seen quicker progress on the offensive side of the ball; I was expecting progress on the defensive side more than I was the offensive side. I thought we’d be sitting through some clunkers on offense while seeing a vastly improved defense; apparently, I was very, very wrong. The Bobcats-like ascent from a last-place defensive team to a top-10 defensive team is most likely not going to happen.
But, there HAS been a jump that has been thrilling to watch: that of Gordon Hayward’s play.
Was anyone else expecting him to make this big of a jump? Ever? This soon?
Yes, I keep hearing the phrase, “Small sample size! Small sample size!” But we were saying that last year when he started his 16/5/5 season, and he was—remarkably—able to maintain that. What if he’s able to maintain this?
Through 11 games, he’s averaging 19.7 points per 36 minutes, has a TS% of .615, rebounding and assist percentages at the highest of his career (9.6% and 24.3% respectively), a dramatically decreased turnover percentage, and a PER of 23.4, good for Top 15 in the league.
Last year, we all saw Hayward struggle with efficiency as opposing defenses keyed in on him, and as he had very little help around him (to say nothing of an offensive system that didn’t seem to play to his strengths). This year, we’re seeing an incredibly efficient player who stepped his game up a notch. Honestly, I didn’t know he had this level of play in him. And I certainly didn’t expect him to come out of the gates like this. But he has come out with a tenacity and a confidence that has been, like the team as a whole, refreshing.
Watching him on the court this year, we’re seeing a markedly different player than we’ve seen before: we’re seeing a player who’s worked his tail off, who has worked hard in the gym and significantly bulked up, who now has the confidence (and dare I say a bit of nasty attitude at times?) to assert himself as the best player on the court more often than ever before.
If this is the Gordon Hayward we’re going to see for the rest of the season—and I’m inclined to believe he’ll keep it up3—the contract he signed in the offseason is going to look like a massive bargain.
And, even better, this team is a joy to watch again.