Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia Race to the MVP Ladder: Gordon Hayward raises his play (and that of Jazz, too)

Steady, solid work has paved Utah's go-to guy emergence as bonafide All-Star, superstar

Gordon Hayward’s NBA master plan always included the individual glory — All-Star teams, perhaps an All-NBA nod and all of the benefits that come with those accolades.

They just never ranked above or were supposed to come at the expense of team goals.

The Utah Jazz swingman will get a chance to enjoy both this season, what with his team on course for potentially a top-four spot in the Western Conference playoff chase and the invitation to New Orleans for next week’s All-Star festivities already in hand.

His slow grind to this point, though, makes the journey that much more enjoyable.

“The biggest challenge for me is always doing whatever I can do to help us get wins,” Hayward said. “Especially with the way I play, the individual awards are going to come through the team success. Trying to help us close out games when they are tight, that’s when the biggest challenges come, trying to learn decision-making at the end of games. What can I do better to help us win those games.”

The 6-foot-8, 226-pound Hayward certainly looks the part of an All-Star, averaging career highs in points (22.2) and rebounds (5.7) this season for the top team in the Northwest Division. He logged his career-best eighth 30-point game of the season — earned Thursday in an overtime loss to Dallas — and could pile up plenty more with 28 games left in the regular season.

But Hayward’s doing more than just leading the Jazz in scoring this season. He’s leading on and off the court, having found his groove in his seventh season in the league. In addition to the steady scoring increase every season, Jazz coach Quin Snyder said he’s impressed with the other significant improvements in Hayward’s game.

“His defense, he’s always taking the challenge of the individual matchups,” Snyder said. “When you are asking a player to do as much as we ask him to do … for us, offensively we needed him to be a playmaker in addition to a scorer. And there’s a tendency to, it’s the one area of the game other than time outs where you can find a way to rest, so sometimes off the ball he’s let his focus go. And that’s happened less and less frequently and it’s something he’s really taken pride in [improving]. It takes energy during a game, particularly on the defensive end, and that’s an area where I’ve seen him really improve in and it helps our team defense.”

What works for Hayward might not work for everyone else. After all, he didn’t necessarily follow the same All-Star path as many of his colleagues. He wasn’t an elite scorer or McDonald’s All-American in high school and he only dabbled with stardom at Butler, guiding the Bulldogs to the NCAA title game against Duke in his final campaign, before taking the leap to the NBA Draft in 2010.

It takes time to develop the suit of superstar armor needed to withstand the intense spotlight that comes with being the bell cow of playoff team. It’s a fit Hayward is admittedly still working on. It’s a process he’s been working through, getting the All-Star treatment without the official designation, for some time.

“I think I’ve felt that for a couple years now,” said Hayward, who had to adjust from playing an individual sport (tennis) at an elite level growing up to immersing himself in the nuances of the ultimate team sport. And it’s definitely a huge adjustment for you, when teams have you on the scouting report and you are one of the top names on the scouting report. It’s just a different game. You’re not getting nearly as many open looks. But I think having those experiences has helped me a lot.

“I had to struggle first before I could find some success. Teammates and coaches help you through those moments, its not an individual thing, like tennis when you’re put there by yourself, you’ve got four other guys out there on the court with you. There are assistant coaches watching film with you, encouraging you and showing you what you did wrong and how you can improve it. So I think having those teammates and coaches there helps you get through those moments.”

Now to this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:

* * *

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 1

The Rockets have won three straight and four of their last five games with Harden continuing his magical season. He endured a nightmare turnovers game (nine) in Thursday’s win over the Hornets, finishing with 30 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in his All-Star duel with Kemba Walker (29.6 points, 9.2 assists, 8.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals in his last five games).

2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 3

Westbrook’s 26th triple-double (in Thursday’s win over Cleveland on TNT) was sweet, but you know he’d love to get No. 27 in another win Saturday night when Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors come to town. The Thunder go into the weekend primed and ready for the much-anticipated KD homecoming (32.8 points, 10.4 assists, 9.6 rebounds, 2.0 steals in his last five games).

3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 2

Getting yelled at by Draymond Green is one thing. But dealing with a back-to-back set in Memphis (today) and Oklahoma City (Saturday, his first trip back since free agency) is really going to test Durant’s resolve. Now would be an ideal time for him to shake out of his mini-funk (21.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.4 blocks, 1.2 steals in his last five games).

4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week: No. 5

Despite rumblings to the contrary, LeBron joined Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the lineup Thursday in Oklahoma City. Now that the drama has subsided, at least a little bit, LeBron and the Cavaliers can concentrate on getting healthy and finding a post-All-Star Game groove (26.8 points, 11.0 assists, 6.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 1.2 steals in his last five games).

5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Last week: No. 4

Leonard sat out Monday’s loss in Memphis with a quad injury but bounced back in typical fashion in Wednesday’s win over Philadelphia, finishing with 32 points, six rebounds and five assists. He was a perfect 11-for-11 from the line, where only Isaiah Thomas averages more makes and shoots them at a higher percentage (26.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 blocks in his last five games).

6. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

Last week: No. 6

A night after the Celtics struggled in a loss in Sacramento, Thomas was back on his fourth quarter grind, scoring 15 of his 34 points in the final quarter in a win in Portland. Thomas has made just nine of his last 33 shots from beyond the 3-point line but has been sterling from the free throw line (31-for-33) during that same stretch (34.0 points, 6.0 assists, 2.6 rebounds in his last five games).

7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 7

He couldn’t get loose in Wednesday’s win over Chicago (13 points on 5-for-11 shooting, 1-for-4 from deep), so expect Curry to press the issue with a marquee matchup tonight against Mike Conley in Memphis (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) and in Saturday night’s date in Oklahoma City against Russell Westbrook. (23.2 points, 6.8 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 2.0 steals in his last five games).

8. John Wall, Washington Wizards

Last week: No. 8

Wall had his Wizards hyped up and ready in that Eastern Conference showdown against Cleveland, even if they did come up a little short in what some people feel was the best game of this season to date. Win or lose, the message has been delivered, Wall and the Wizards are legit (23.4 points, 12.2 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals in his last five games).

9. Paul George, Indiana Pacers

Last week: No. 9

George has scored 20 or more points in four straight games heading into tonight’s showdown in Washington against the Wizards (8 ET, ESPN). It’ll be the Pacers’ second straight test against a top-three team in the conference, the ideal test for a star and his team trying to figure out where they fit in the pecking order. (19.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.6 steals in his last five games).

10. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz

Last week: No. 10

Hayward has been on a tear recently, particularly since learning that he’d earned his first All-Star bid. The Jazz have solidified themselves as a legitimate top-four Western Conference team behind the work of Hayward, who has improved dramatically on both ends this season. (28.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.6 steals in his last five games).

Next five (listed alphabetically): Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls; Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies; Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

Next up?

An inside look from an Eastern Conference scout at Kelly Oubre Jr.:

“Here is a great example of a young guy who you have the luxury of developing and molding into the very best of what he can be without the pressure of putting him into a prominent role before he’s actually ready. And I mean that as a compliment to the Wizards and to the kid. He’s really coming into his own, both as a defender and overall player, and I think you’ll see him play a significant role off the bench for that team the rest of this season and in the playoffs and open some eyes of people who maybe haven’t kept up with him since he showed up on Draft night with those shiny shoes. But his size and length allow him to guard multiple positions on the defensive end. [Wizards coach] Scotty [Brooks] had him on LeBron in the fourth quarter Monday night, he trusted him with that assignment in that games, which speaks volumes about what they think of him. Sometimes the absolute best thing for a kid like that is a set of fresh eyes from the staff. They come in and see things in you that the previous staff did not and maybe they fine tune some things that would have otherwise been overlooked or gone untouched. He’s a pup, just 21, but already sturdy enough to guard his position and with a high ceiling. He’s got so much room to grow. I’ll be interested to see if he keeps improving in this same way, because he could be something special.”

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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