Yes, it’s early. Yes, the Jazz are still sub-.500. And yes, the record will probably get worse before it gets significantly better. But Jazz personnel are off to a nice start making names for themselves.
In particular, three Jazz team members have entered the broader basketball discussion with their strong early performances. Today we look at three burgeoning stars in the blue, green and gold.
This is the easy one, especially hours after Hayward was elevated by a ton of feel-good coverage around his last-second dagger. Hayward was a nationwide Twitter trend on Wednesday after authoring perhaps the most exciting Jazz game finish since Paul Millsap’s Miracle in Miami game.
ICYMI: Gordon Hayward’s clutch buzzer-beater leads Jazz over Cavaliers, 102-100. VIDEO: http://t.co/513eYvldYf
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 6, 2014
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) November 6, 2014
— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) November 6, 2014
But that only tells part of the story, even for that game. Hayward was ridiculously good for the other 47 minutes and 59 seconds: 21 total points, 7 assists, 4 boards and solid defense on the best basketball player in the world.
And in even broader terms, Hayward’s performance through five games is worthy of the star buzz. His early averages are north of 19-6-5, numbers that only 10 other players have accomplished in any season since the turn of the century1. The list is full of All-Star wings and famously versatile stars.
His advanced stats tell a similar story. His PER of 24.1 is All-Star level. His early Win Share returns are even crazier. If he were to maintain his current WS/48 production (he probably won’t, but humor me) and play 36 mpg in all 82 games (again, just play along), he’d have a WS of 12.6 by season’s end, an elite number. WS isn’t a perfect stat because its inputs are limited, but what I like about it is that its results usually line up with common sense about who a given year’s stars were. Look at the 12+ crowd in any year and you’ll undoubtedly say, “Yes, those were the biggest stars at that point in the NBA.” Last year, the exclusive fraternity of 12+ WS included LBJ, Durant, Love, Curry, Harden, Blake and CP3. With 77 games still to go, Gordon Daniel Hayward is threatening to crash that list.
And the way Hayward is doing it is equally impressive. Here are a few Hayward trends to watch.
If he keeps performing like that — not to mention headlining SportsCenter with late-game heroics — he’ll be an All-Star as soon as the Jazz can post a winning percentage that would justify his selection.
The Jazz may have a legitimate candidate for Most Improved Player in their frontcourt. Favors is playing essentially the same exact minutes as last year2, but his production has jumped sharply.
He’s getting just two more shots per game, but a career-best .643 True Shooting has boosted his scoring average to 18.4. The Jazz are finding ways to put him in situations where he’s most comfortable. Favors has never been an inadequate back-to-the-basket player, but he’s far better when he catches the ball with his momentum going to the hoop. I have long said that if you can get Favor the ball inside 10 feet going towards the rack, 90% of the time he’s going to score or get fouled. The Jazz are doing that, and the result is he’s finishing at an insane .889 clip around the basket3 and getting to the line a career-best 4.8 times per contest.
He’s slowly learning to pass in Quin Snyder’s offense, with modest increases in assist percentage and assists per game. But most importantly, he’s orchestrated the defense better than ever. Favors just doesn’t make defensive mistakes relative to the Jazz’s scheme and principles, and he does a great deal to cover up others’ gaffes.
But this post is about the leap to stardom, so let’s back out to the macro level. He’s averaging a beastly 19-and-8, and aside from one clunker in LA, he’s been the second most automatic thing on the Jazz’s roster. The new offense has unleashed the version of Favors that evoked the Amar’e Stoudemire and Al Horford comparisons.
And speaking of the offense…
The final burgeoning star on Utah’s roster does most of his work from the sideline. The rookie coach is picking up significant props within the NBA community.
It’s easy to see why. The Jazz are playing a very appealing brand of basketball that has garnered several “League Pass darling” references. They truly are playing with a pass; they lead the league in passes per game, per the NBA.com stats tool, and even though a lot of those aren’t turning into assists, they’re 4th in assist opportunities4 The result is that Utah is churning out 110 points per 100 possessions, third best in the young season.
Whether or not those numerical levels are sustainable, it’s the offensive creativity that I have enjoyed the most. For one example of what I’m talking about, check out this awesome pattern play they ran against Cleveland.
The play starts with that same high post split action Coach Nick of Bball Breakdown gushed about where they send two guys across the same high screen in opposite directions. Dante Exum then delivers a left-hand dribble handoff to Hayward. The synchronization between Exum and Hayward leads them into simultaneous picks from Rudy Gobert and Trevor Booker, respectively. Exum continues his loop route, accelerating over the screen on what is now the weak side, while Hayward demands enough attention to force help in the strong side P&R. That frees up Booker to facilitate what, in essence, becomes a two-step give and go play.
It’s just fantastic basketball. Chances are, it’s not a play designed for one specific outcome. It’s definitely a set piece, but it’s probably meant to generate read options, and that outcome is what became available because of how they played the Hayward-Booker P&R and how Exum zoomed off the Gobert screen. But it’s just an example of the type of offensive creativity Snyder is bringing. If this were football, we’d call that a trick play. It also took about :05 from the time Exum puts the play in motion.
I’m always nervous when someone is anointed a genius before he or she has really proven anything. There was so much offseason adulation for Snyder that I was concerned there would be no way to live up to the almost messianic expectations. But with 240 minutes of NBA head coaching experience now under his belt, he’s showing the early chops to back up all that summer love. And remember, we’ve only seen a portion of his offense implemented thus far.