The rise of a young player in the NBA is anything but a consistent or smooth process. Instead, it’s full of unpredictable arcs, slumps and plateaus that arise along with a diversity of challenges and adjustments – both physical and mental – that the player faces. It certainly can test a fan’s patience when the guy they just know is going to be the next big thing for their team has a 30 point game one night just to disappear for a month.
Until suddenly, it happens: That point where we can say, with unwavering assurance, that said player has “arrived”.
Sometimes, this moment never quite comes. A player with what seems like a huge reserve of talent will flash and go black as quickly as a firework, peppering box scores with occasionally incredible performances and inexplicably disappearing for games on end, and repeating this process for the rest of their career. It’s a perpetual rollercoaster ride of inconsistency that’s infuriating to even the most patient fan. It’s one of the reasons why CJ Miles no longer plays for the Jazz. Another reason, you might argue, is Gordon Hayward.
The Jazz have been working hard to make Hayward one of the faces of this franchise since before the lockout-shortened season of 2011-2012, plastering his face on billboards and ads. This, amidst criticism that the team should have drafted the now-flourishing Paul George. Now, I was happy with Gordon as the 9th pick from day one – but I have to admit, despite the incredible bursts of magic #20 has shown from time to time in his young career, I’ve wondered at times if he would ever truly arrive, or if he’d tease us with those arcs and plateaus for years. Even after drawing heavy praise from Kobe Bryant, there have been times where Hayward seems to fade a bit, as does his confidence.
It’s taken him two and a half seasons, but I think he’s just about there. Over the last 10 games, Hayward has averaged 16 points, shooting 55% from the field and even better from three-point range. But more important than simple stats is the fact that his presence is easily seen and felt in recent games – there are incredibly talented NBA players who score in bunches but who simply don’t win games throughout their career. In January, the Jazz are 6-2 and Gordon Hayward is easily one of the key reasons why. He’s imposing his will and getting to the free throw line. Sharing point guard duties with Alec Burks, Hayward has shown he understands the system by setting up a variety of impressive plays – from nostalgia-infusing pick n’ rolls with Favors to splitting the defense and kicking out for an open Foye three-pointer. He looks confident. He looks collected. Most importantly, he’s looked that way since late December, and guys like Millsap can’t help but say he’s been the leader of the team.
On Monday, against the Miami Heat, we saw the Jazz open up a very satisfying lead only to have Miami close the gap to within a basket late in the fourth. Then, when LeBron James was effectively shutting down Al Jefferson on the low block and the game was in the balance, something beautiful happened: Gordon took control. His behind-the-back move driving toward the basket wasn’t only pretty; it created enough space for Hayward to pop in the shot that arguably secured a Utah Jazz victory. With the crowd going crazy and the Jazz bench giving fist bumps all over, Miami called a time out. At that moment, Hayward was as much the leader of his team as he was the bane of the opposing team. It was clear to every athlete on the court and fan in the stands that he was taking matters into his own hands – exactly what the team needs him to do.
Here’s to hoping that Gordon Hayward’s stellar play continues to expand with his confidence and experience in the league. Here’s to hoping he’s truly arrived.