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Utah Jazz: Right now, Hayward at best with ball in his hands

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(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward runs around Phoenix Suns shooting guard Matt Janning during a game at EnergySolutions Arena on Oct. 14, 2010.

By Brian T. Smith

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Mar 08 2012 05:06PM
Updated Mar 9, 2012 12:50AM

Philadelphia • Gordon Hayward at his best: aggressive, up tempo, attacking. And with the ball in his hands.

That’s the verdict on the swingman more than 20 months into his tenure with the Jazz.

The No. 9 overall pick of the 2010 NBA Draft entered the league surrounded by doubt. Hayward couldn’t shoot, slash or defend well enough to consistently play at a high level, critics said. After overcoming an initial battle with self-confidence, the former Butler standout has proven doubters wrong.

The 21-year-old Hayward ranks third on the Jazz in average scoring (9.7) and assists (3.1). He’s held his own defensively against everyone from Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant to the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, drawing big-time praise from the latter. The second-year Utah forward has also shown he can close games, displaying a willingness to take the final shot, while not being afraid to miss.

Where has the ahead-of-schedule progress landed Hayward? On the bench.

Not because he doesn’t belong in Utah’s starting lineup — for the first 36 games of the season, Hayward was the only player on the Jazz’s roster who started every contest.

But coach Tyrone Corbin is attempting to maximize the potential of his first and second units as a deep Utah team makes a second-half playoff push, and the Jazz believe Hayward will benefit in the short and long term by temporarily being a reserve.

As a starter, Hayward was often Utah’s fourth offensive option. He ranked below veteran inside-power duo Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, who dominate the Jazz’s play calls. Point guard Devin Harris’ recent surge further removed the ball from Hayward’s hands. As a result, he’d become little more than a standstill shooter. More Raja Bell than a slashing small forward, yet shooting only 43.1 percent from the field and 25.3 percent behind the 3-point line.

Once Hayward was made a reserve, he instantly became Utah’s primary scoring option off the bench. Teaming with pass-first backup point guard Earl Watson, Hayward can either dribble and drive, pull up for a long-range jump shot or run the pick-and-roll. He’s again a decision-maker, allowed to react and attack instead of alternately waiting and overthinking.

Hayward went through predraft interviews saying he was comfortable either running off screens or controlling the shot clock himself. He said the same during the past few days, while adjusting to his new role in the Jazz’s system. But Hayward also acknowledged the ball often belonged to him in high school and at Butler, and his ability to slice toward the rim for layups and explosive dunks often triggers his overall attack.

"When you come to the NBA, you have to learn that usually that’s not going to be the case," Hayward said. "Most players don’t just come in and they’re ... the person with the ball all the time. Or they don’t get all the plays drawn up for them, or the minutes or the shots to really do that. You’ve got to be able to learn how to do other things to help your team."

A crucial stage in Hayward’s evolution is balancing assertiveness holding the ball with an improved ability to play without it. He’s neither a true shooting guard nor a dedicated small forward at this point in his career, and he’s open to playing both positions.

"Gordon can excel in any situation. He’s a talented enough player to make the adjustments," Harris said. "We don’t like to label him as a shooting guard or a small forward, and we feel like he can do a lot of different things. He’s one of the more talented guys on the team."

Right now, the Jazz are pushing Hayward to simply create. But to truly maximize his potential and continue to prove initial doubters wrong, Hayward is also going to have to one day find his inner Reggie Miller.

"As he progresses in his career, he’s going to realize that and continue to move [without the ball] more and get more open looks," Utah assistant coach Sidney Lowe said. "Then he’ll be able to do both. He’ll be able to put it in his hands; he’ll be able to come off screens — he’ll just move to get open. He’s got some assets that he hasn’t tapped into yet that [are] going to be really good."

bsmith@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribjazz

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