It seems as if the NBA season just started a few weeks ago, but here we are, over a third of the way through the marathon. With that in mind, as we did last season–borrowing from ESPN.com’s Trimester honors–it’s time to dole out some similar honors to the Jazz.
Most Valuable Player: With all due respect to Derrick Favors, who has been tremendous throughout the early season1, the nod here goes to Gordon Hayward. No Jazz player garnered more offseason attention than the swingman. Off the heels of a 16/5/5 season that saw him assume the primary option role with mixed results (41 percent shooting), Utah’s matching the four-year, $63 million max offer sheet from the Charlotte Hornets was a big move met with different responses among the Jazz fan base. Thanks to his heady play, it is safe to say that any detractors have been very quiet.
In short, Hayward has been terrific. He is playing with an increased passion and confidence. The work he put in during the summer–adding strength, competing in the FIBA tryouts with some of the NBA’s best–is evident in the way he’s performing. Rather than the occasional brilliant game he would have last season, the brilliance is becoming common fare. Hayward is taking the step from being very good to elite, the most difficult leap to take.
All the numbers back it up Hayward’s excellence and versatility: 19.0 PPG (46 percent FGs, 37 percent 3s, 80 percent FTs), 5.2 RPG, 4.1 APG and 1.3 SPG. There is so much to like in terms of the advanced stats. The jump from 16.2 to 20.0 PER is huge. He is posting career-bests in true shooting percentage (.585, up from .520), FTA rate (.438, from .271) and win shares/per 48 minutes (.127, from .062). He is shooting better from almost every range, while decreasing heavily his long two-point attempts. The return to his career shooting norms from 3-point range has been a major development. We could go on and on2.
Hayward’s play merits All-Star consideration. He has made clutch shots and has gone into video game, takeover mode several times. Hayward has clearly been Utah’s MVP thus far.
Most Improved Player: Hayward could easily earn this honor, as well, but we’re going with second-year center Rudy Gobert. Branded by many to be a project player who would require several seasons, the Frenchman has exceeded everyone’s expectations with his strong play. We have discussed his steady emergence recently, but he’s amped things up even in the past few weeks. His 20.8 PER is difficult to ignore, as is his league-best 7.4 BLK%.
Gobert simply changes the game with his defense and the way he absolutely engulfs rebounds3. His consistency belies his young age. He is quickly becoming one of the NBA’s best reserve centers and plays with a contagious energy and determination. Watching his rapid growth has been an absolute delight. Head coach Quin Snyder has a lot of confidence in him, as his increasing playing time indicates. The now and the future is very bright for Gobert.
Rookie of the Trimester: All three rookies have had their moments. Dante Exum, Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles have been in Snyder’s rotation much of the season, although Ingles is seeing a decrease in playing time lately. Hood is showing why he might prove to be one of the 2014 Draft’s biggest steals. He is starting to shoot consistently, contributes on the boards and plays with a maturity and smoothness that is fun to watch.
That said, this has got to be Exum. While his numbers appear rather pedestrian, Exum has turned a nice corner the past few weeks. He runs the offense well–things flow when he’s in the game. His unselfishness is refreshing. Exum’s shooting is encouraging4, particularly from downtown–a very solid 36.2 percent. Snyder has pleaded with him to be less reluctant when open and he is responded well. On defense, Exum still makes some mistakes, but his length, lateral quickness and pesky effort show the potential he has on that end of the court. Like Gobert, it’s proving hard to keep him off the court, as his PT also is increasing.
Sixth Man of the Trimester: Trevor Booker began the season on fire, but has certainly tapered down since that torrid start. He continues to bring energy and hustle to the table. But for all the aforementioned reason, this has to go to Gobert.
Defensive Player of the Trimester: Trying not to take the easy way out, but… Gobert, anyone? In November and December, his Defensive Rating sits at just over 100. His shot blocking, defensive rebounding, weak-side help, agility and overall instincts just make his a force to be reckoned with for opposing offenses.
Coach of the Trimester: Lastly, it is important to recognize Snyder’s development. The losing streak was concerning, but the team has improved in myriad ways the past several weeks. This 3-3 road trip was a major accomplishment. Minus the Charlotte game, the Jazz were in those games. The players are clearly buying into Snyder’s philosophies on both ends of the court and the confidence and cohesiveness is growing.