Utah Jazz are a write-off, but Gordon Hayward is a star

The Jazz look to be frontrunners in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes, but Gordon Hayward will be a crucial asset in years to come (AP/Rick Bowmer)

Gordon Hayward was inches away from basketball immortality.

As his half-court prayer hung, suspended in air for what seemed like ages, Butler’s Cinderella upset of Duke in the 2010 NCAA Final almost wrote itself.

Alas, the ball clanged off the rim, ruining thousands of David vs. Goliath stories, and Duke won its fourth national title.

That disappointment aside, though, basketball has been pretty good to Hayward. Now, the versatile fourth-year guard/forward has emerged as one of the focal points of a young and rebuilding Utah Jazz squad.

“[I have] definitely been asking to be more of a leader, along with Derrick Favors,” Hayward said, prior to a 115-91 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Saturday night. “We need to lead this team, just based on the way we play, the way we act, and kind of show this is how we’re going to be in Utah, and this is how it’s going to be.”

Hayward prides himself on his ability to get teammates open looks, and the six-foot-eight swingman is an excellent passer for his size.

“I just like making plays for others. Whatever position [I’m playing], doesn’t matter,” Hayward said.

Utah head coach Tyrone Corbin echoes the sentiment.

“We look for Gordon at times to facilitate our offence for other guys and try to get them easy baskets because of his versatility,” Corbin says. “He’s not a point guard by position, but he has the ability to do it for us, he’s done it in the past. It’s a little more pressure now that he’s the focal point, but he’s growing into the position and I think he’s doing a pretty good job for us.”

Thus far, the 0-7 Jazz are off to a nightmare start, but Hayward is the last person to fault for the team’s winless record. A tireless worker, his commitment to excellence isn’t lost on his teammates.

“He’s a humble guy that works extremely hard. He leads by example and he’s doing everything he can to learn and help the team win,” veteran forward Richard Jefferson says.

“He doesn’t really have a weakness in his game. He’s six-foot-eight, he can play pick-and-roll, he’s a good shooter off the dribble, spot-up, moving without the ball. But, you know the hard part about that is that he wants to improve on every aspect of his game.”

In the first quarter against the Raptors, Hayward catches the ball off the dribble and speeds past an overmatched Jonas Valanciunas with a eurostep that should be taught at basketball academies across the globe. It’s an explosive play, and one that signifies the multi-faceted nature of Hayward’s game.

Even with the game all but conceded, Hayward refuses to extinguish his competitive fire. With 2:07 remaining in the third quarter, he drives to the basket with a full head of steam, drawing contact from Toronto forward Tyler Hansbrough on the jumper and getting a continuation foul in the process.

Although Hayward turns in a stellar game, with a team-high 24 points and seven rebounds, he is seething after getting blown out for a second consecutive night.

“Defensively, definitely a lack of effort or lack of execution. Way too many points, easy points, dunks, wide open threes. We weren’t there,” he says. “We struggled on this road trip, and we struggled on this season. Hopefully we can turn it around.”

Even with Utah in pole position for the No. 1 pick next summer, the Jazz have a bona fide asset on their hands: a versatile player capable of playing three positions at a high level, with a relentless commitment to getting better.

“We’ve got to find out something about ourselves right now and hopefully we can push our way through it.”

That may be, but something has become clear about Hayward: Even on a team that is rapidly becoming the NBA’s punch line, he is headed towards stardom.

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