PK

Hayward Hits His Stride

By Patrick Kinahan

From nothing much early on to outstanding of late, the difference in Gordon Hayward’s game is more than just the passage of time.

In the early part of this season, Hayward was indifferent, passive and tentative. Possessing great athleticism, Hayward was content to beat a path to the basket only to appear scared once he got there.

“He was conceding a lot, especially on the offensive end,” Jazz analyst Thurl Bailey told DJ and PK on their show on 1320 KFAN.

Now he’s anything but those ineffective qualities, displaying a talent that has made fools out of all those draft night naysayers two years ago. Instead of looking wide-eyed, Hayward has adopted a fearless approach at both ends of the floor.

The second-year professional out of Butler began this season like he wasn’t close to fulfilling the potential the Jazz had hoped for when they drafted him with the ninth pick in 2010. The chorus of boos that drowned out the cheers throughout the EnergySolutions Arena prompted general manager Kevin O’Connor to rebuke the doubters.

Turns out, the boss was right.

After averaging a pedestrian nine points a game through January, Hayward has blossomed as the regular season draws to a close. In April, spanning six games, the wingman has averaged 18.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

For comparison sake, outside of superstars such as Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, Hayward’s numbers are as good as any player at this position in the Western Conference.

“I see Gordon Hayward potentially being an All-Star,” Bailey said.

Interestingly, a demotion may have spearheaded the surge.

After starting Hayward the first 36 games, coach Ty Corbin made a change on March 5. In his first game coming off the bench, Hayward responded with 23 points, five assists and four rebounds in a 109-100 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

As Bailey notes, “Something clicked.”

“It gave him a chance to relax,” Bailey said. “It gave him a chance to get more touches with that second group.”

By the time injuries forced Corbin to re-adjust, Hayward had become a different player. Since going scoreless in the win over the Lakers in Los Angeles on March 18, Hayward has taken off.

He has scored in double figures in all but one of the last 14 games, with the exception coming in a blowout win over New Jersey. And his two blocked shots on one possession against the Boston Celtics is the reason Bailey lists Hayward as potentially the team’s best all-around player.

It’s also why former assistant coach Phil Johnson believes Hayward can average between 15 -20 points, five assists and five rebounds.

“He’s going to be an outstanding player,” Johnson told David Locke on his Locked on Jazz podcast. “I’m very high on him.”

For his part, Hayward takes the praise in stride. Barely 22 years old, he’s far from a finished product.

Virtually any NBA player can get on a hot streak, which really is all Hayward has proved he’s on. It’s all about consistency.

“My mantra always is to improve every day and get better,” he said.

While no one on the Jazz roster is untouchable, Hayward might be the most untradeable player. The logical choice for such a distinction probably is Derrick Favors, but Hayward certainly is more accomplished at this time.

The guess here is Bailey will be correct in his assertion that Hayward will be a future All-Star. It might not be outlandish to suggest that he eventually could be the best guard in the Western Conference, assuming that Bryant doesn’t beat Father Time over the next 3-5 years.

And if Favors develops as expected, the Jazz could end up with two all-stars for several years. Not a bad starting point.