It seems some subset of the NBA population will forever be wondering whether Gordon Hayward is a star, whether Gordon Hayward was overpaid, whether Gordon Hayward has what it takes to be the leader of a title-contending basketball team. They should stop. An early-season blip that really wasn’t all that blip-y in the first place may have marred things to a point, but not only is Hayward playing as well as he was in his breakout season last year, he’s almost certainly playing better in the last few weeks.
Hayward was the driving force behind a blowout win over the Knicks Wednesday night, outscoring New York by himself in the first quarter. It took the Knicks until 8:49 in the second period to put more points on the board than Gordon, despite the fact that he wasn’t even in the game for that entire time. The team needed a fresh energy after a miserable start against the Kings in Sacramento Tuesday night, and Hayward knows he’s the one his teammates look to in those situations.
“No doubt. No doubt. That’s definitely on Derrick Favors and I to make sure we’re leading by example,” Hayward said. “I thought we did that tonight.”
Gordon’s comments, as they have since last season, reflect the maturation that’s made him the de facto leader of this team at just 25 years of age. The scrum might surround him more than anyone postgame if he has a great game in a win, but it will definitely be largest around him in any loss, regardless how he performs. He and Favors set the tone — in practice, in games, in the locker room, on the plane. To wax nostalgic for just a moment, seeing what Hayward has grown into from the lanky, sometimes-awkward 20-year-old who heard his name called by the Jazz in 2010 is a realization of so much potential through so much hard work.
To break back out from the nostalgia, a reminder that all that work has made him a very, very good basketball player. Hayward is now sitting on an average of 22 points, 5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2 steals a game in four contests for the month of December, corresponding with the period missed so far by Rudy Gobert. He’s shooting over 50 percent from the field and nearly 55 percent from deep in this time, now up over 41 percent from beyond the arc for the season on 4.5 nightly attempts. His coach never thought he was playing anywhere close to badly earlier in the year, but does concede that things are falling into place even more nicely now.
“It’s just about him making the right decisions,” said Quin Snyder. “Someone goes under in the pick-and-roll, he shoots. It sounds simple, but I think he’s making the right read, and as a result he’s playing with a lot of certainty. It’s instinctive.”
Whatever the hurdles earlier in the year, this latest stretch of games has been a reminder for Jazz fans and prognosticators everywhere: This team still goes as Gordon Hayward goes. Even with Favors raising his level to match Gordon’s leap from last year, periods where their star wing is humming seem like the ones where they’re truly capable of beating anyone.
“Just a basketball play.”
-Derrick Favors, with a thin hint of a devilish grin, when asked about Rodney Hood’s hard foul on Sasha Vujacic that saw him ejected in the fourth quarter. Fav clearly didn’t want to get too far into a sensitive subject.
Rodney goes Hood: Man, Sasha Vujacic is really good at getting under people’s skin. Like, is there a chance he’s one of the greatest non-star players in history at this particular, rarely-useful skill?
Look, no one is absolving Hood of a dangerous play that doesn’t contribute to the game of basketball. He appeared to deserve the ejection at first glance and even seemed to know it himself, quickly walking off the court after the play. He may even get a call from the league about missing a game Friday night, though to this eye this one didn’t look quite that egregious1.
But, man, Sasha must have done some serious work to get things to that point. You simply will not find a more mild-mannered, non-outlandish player in the Jazz locker room (or many NBA locker rooms) than Rodney Hood. He’d legitimately be among the very last players someone who spends time in that locker room would pick to commit this sort of foul, especially in a blowout game. Some guys just have a talent for making you snap, and while again this is no justification, Vujacic has some special skills here.
“Emotions [were] high,” said Favors, continuing his quote from above. “[Rodney] was playing hard, Sasha was playing hard, it just kind of happened.”
It will almost certainly be the last time it happens for Hood, especially if he does end up missing a game for it.
Taking back the paint: The Jazz gave up an ugly 28-point deficit for points scored in the paint against Sacramento Tuesday night, but were back to their usual form in this regard against the Knicks. One might have worried before the game about Utah’s size, with Trey Lyles starting at power forward opposite a guy in Kristaps Porzingis who has him by several inches for both height and reach. But any of those thoughts were put to bed early, with the Jazz eventually boasting a 14-point advantage in the paint that actually undersold their overall performance — it was closer to a 20-point gap while the game was still competitive. Lyles and Trevor Booker were both much improved on this night, and Jeff Withey came in for good minutes in both halves alongside them. Of course, Favors did the bulk of the work — he scored 12 of Utah’s 42 paint points on the night.
Trey Lyles, rolling with the punches: Lyles makes his third consecutive appearance in the Rundown, and the second straight where his notes are a 180-degree polar opposite of the previous game. After an incredibly rough night defensively in Sacramento, Snyder put his trust right back in the rookie, starting Lyles and even having him spend stretches in single coverage on Carmelo Anthony.
“Coach is just asking me to play solid defense,” Lyles told me after the game. “Not give up open looks, not give up cuts to the basket. I had a lapse against Sacramento, wasn’t as good defensively as I thought I should have been, and I got on myself and really tried to turn it around today.”
The key now will be making the blips disappear, but Lyles is already making more progress early in his first NBA season than many had expected on both ends of the ball. Snyder is clearly prioritizing his development and trial by fire, something that’s sure to help him in a big way down the line.
Chicken: It’s become almost a little silly (okay, not really) how intense the Vivint Arena crowd gets when they sense a chance at free Chick-fil-A for an opponent missing two consecutive free throws in the fourth quarter of a game. Wednesday night, with a blowout in place for the entire quarter, the noise started building the moment a Knicks player was awarded a shooting foul — that’s right, the home crowd was cheering the home team taking personal fouls on the off chance that they’d get a free chicken sandwich out of it. And lo and behold, they were rewarded! Lou Amundson missed two with 38 seconds to go, and everyone gets free food.
Deep wing rotation continues to vary: Beyond Hayward, Hood and Alec Burks, Snyder has rotated his wings’ playing time pretty variably most of the year. Joe Ingles was the clear fourth wing to start the year, then Chris Johnson found some favor, and most recently Elijah Millsap has seen some sizable minutes in the last few games as a defensive stopper. Snyder has talked often on the year about guys being ready to play when called upon, and it’s been big for the depth in recent weeks.
“That’s a huge part of being a good team, is having guys worry about how the team wins or loses, and not worried about individual stuff,” Hayward said. “Everybody wants minutes, everybody wants to be on the court, but we’ve got some good guys, and guys that are worried about the right things.”
Tough stretch upcoming: Wednesday’s win was a must, because a brutal period of Utah’s schedule now looms. The Jazz get the Thunder at home Friday, a team that walloped them in Salt Lake City last time around even while Rudy Gobert was healthy, and then head to OKC for a home-and-home Sunday. Worse yet, they then head into San Antonio for a back-to-back against the red hot Spurs, a team actually on pace to better Golden State’s 67-win season from last year even as the Warriors are on pace to, well, never lose ever again. Jazz players and coaches alike noted the tough stretch upcoming, and it would probably be nice for the Jazz to eke one win out of the three games.