By Shane Young
In a league that’s more populated with star talent than the mid-2000’s, it’s becoming increasingly harder to make the all-star reserve cuts. In the Western Conference, you almost have to string together unprecedented statistical feats, or be the unequivocal marquee player on a team destined for 60 wins. You can’t even win over the coaches by getting the “Kyle Korver vote,” fitting in the space of “extremely critical role player” that’s key to a top seed’s success.
Mike Conley has never been an All-Star, and he’s a top seven point guard in the entire league. One of the world’s three best defenders this year – Rudy Gobert – probably won’t get in February’s festivities. From the rosters I’ve made out on paper, it should come down between him or Klay Thompson. And we know which one has the higher scoring average, public draw, and better team record.
Gordon Hayward, this season, may be the perfect example of a player that’s clearly all-star level in terms of production, but likely won’t be awarded a spot on the West’s 12-man roster.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t earned it, however.
Tuesday’s matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers was right up there in terms of “prove just how deadly you are” games for the Utah Jazz. It’s the second-most impressive win of the season for them, behind only the 106-91 shellacking of the San Antonio Spurs in early November – a night in which the Jazz shot 15-of-31 from 3-point range and outscored the Spurs 71-48 in the first and fourth quarters combined.
Utah’s win over the defending-champion Cavaliers was more of a contested battle. It was also the debut of Kyle Korver for Cleveland, while J.R. Smith is still nursing his injured thumb. But, they were a fully-loaded team when it came to the three stars, and Utah handled them in Salt Lake City.
Hayward went toe-to-toe with LeBron James, and outplayed him during his 37 minutes of action. His 28 points on 12 shots became the second time he’s ever been that efficient with a bulk of scoring – the other time being last year, making 13 free throws in a game. Last night, he only got to the line 5 times, doing most of his damage from quality, efficient field goals.
Hayward’s usage was only 18.7 percent in Tuesday’s game – almost 10 full percentage points below his season-average – and yet it epitomizes what Jazz head coach, Quin Snyder, has ingrained into his player’s heads for the last three years. Every successful team needs an offensive leader of some sort, but life is much simpler and smoother when you don’t force the action, and things flow naturally to you.
After missing the first six games of the season, Hayward has put together the most compelling case to be an all-star outside of the obvious candidates. He’s had an even better season that sophomore sensation Karl Towns, and although I might be in the minority, I would argue his collective effort (so far) has been a small notch above Damian Lillard.
While he’s not shooting the same percentages from three that he did during his first and third years, Hayward’s 38.6 percent mark from deep deserves more recognition now. The main reason for that is the substantial uptick in volume. He’s taking 7.6 threes per 100 possessions now (a career-high), and knocking them down at a proficient rate. Teams have had seven years to figure him out, and he finds new ways to create shots.
You never really were able to go under screens while defending him, but some still make the mistake. When you go under the screen on a shooter and have your teammate switch on the pick-and-roll, it allows for too much time in-between. And way too much space:
Kevin Love isn’t a short dude, but that’s too much of a gap and there’s not enough defensive pressure to rattle the shooter. Maybe it’s just the fact that Gobert is in the upper-echelon of screen-setters today, and there’s really nothing a defense can do that optimizes success against a Hayward-Gobert screen-roll. Going over the top of a screen is preferred – unless you’re dealing with shooters generally below 30-32 percent from three. With Hayward, though, he’s so skilled as a pull-up shooter that going over the screen doesn’t always prevent him from getting a great shot off. Gobert is a massive body, and by the time a defender makes the trip around him, Hayward is already pulling the trigger:
Hayward’s swing and shooting motion are one of the smoothest in the league, and if you notice above, his shooting vertical is much higher than most players you’ll watch.
His larger leap and strong use of the legs are what helps him while shooting on-the-move. A lot of times, you’ll see players shooting short from distance as the game progresses. Fatigue sets in, and they forget to use their legs. Hayward, though, has made a habit of keeping his shooting mechanics the same. It helps him shoot very efficiently off screens, where he scores 1.27 points per possession – second to only Stephen Curry this season (min. 50 attempts). When you think about him being above Kevin Durant, J.J. Redick, and Kyle Korver in this respect, it gives a true perspective of both his value, and the importance of Utah’s offensive sets to get him in those positions.
It’s rather intriguing that Snyder has been able to mold the offense into one that has less predictability than some of the Jazz’s West counterparts. Defenses don’t necessarily treat Hayward like a star, or even a first option at times. It helps when you have a team with multiple ball-handlers that are capable of making the defense move. Although this penetrator below is sophomore Trey Lyles, most of their wings are able to get into the paint and force a defensive decision to be made. The beneficiary is Hayward, who is able to play off-ball and thrive when his man collapses into the paint:
Gobert slips the screen he was about to set for Lyles, while Tristan Thompson has to help close off the lane on Lyles’s drive. Kevin Love (Hayward’s man) has no choice but to leave the corner, or Gobert will have an easy lob at the rim. With an exceptional pass from Lyles, it’s Hayward who has a wide-open look.
Hayward has shot 42-of-109 (38.5 percent) off catch-and-shoot threes this year, slightly better than his 36.5 percent last season. That increases to 39.6 percent when he’s open (at least 4 feet of space), a number that should continue to rise as long as point guard George Hill doesn’t miss any more time.
When he puts the ball on the floor, Hayward is one of the best forwards when it comes to taking care of the ball. He doesn’t turn it over, posting the lowest turnover percentage of his career (10.3), despite having the highest free throw attempt rate of his career (.441).
How are those two related? Free throw rate is generally increased with more drives to the basket – unless, of course, defenders are just committing silly fouls on jump-shooters. More penetration into the paint increases a likelihood of turnovers, simply due to all of the congestion and more pairs of hands trying to strip the ball loose. So, even with more attacking this year, he’s being smart and making most of his possessions count.
Defense has been the Jazz’s calling card for the last few years, and Hayward is a healthy contributor in that department as well. But the offensive end is what sticks out the most this season. Utah remains one of the four teams in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive rating, along with Golden State, San Antonio, and the L.A. Clippers (the West remains supreme, for now).
Utah deserves at least one all-star, and it’s hard to see how they’ll even get one. They have two strong candidates, with Gobert being in line for a major NBA award at the end of the year.
Nevertheless, Hayward has performed at a high-caliber rate this season. He only has four playoff games under his belt. Maybe the Jazz’s upcoming postseason will help get his name further into the spotlight.