In 2010 Gordon Hayward was the best basketball player at a small university, but most basketball fans had never heard of him. Then he led small mid-major Butler University to a Cinderella run to the Final Four and NCAA tournament championship game. Two months later he would become Utah’s third top-10 draft pick in 27 years when the Jazz used the ninth pick on the Horizon League star.
Hoping for a big man to fill the void left by Carlos Boozer, Jazz fans booed when the pick was announced. “I heard the fans booed when I was drafted but I was just so happy to be drafted that it didn’t bother me at all,” Hayward later said.
Hayward’s rookie season was full of ups and downs and he was part of unprecedented change when head coach Jerry Sloan resigned and All-Star point guard Deron Williams was traded. Amidst that type of turmoil, it would be impossible for any rookie to shine, and those struggles made fans reiterate their displeasure with the pick.
Struggling to adjust to NBA level competition, Hayward started 17 games as a rookie. For every 36 minutes he was on the court he averaged 11.5 points and 4.1 rebounds. Those aren’t bad numbers for a rookie but they weren’t enough to silence the critical fans who wanted to see more than potential. Late in the year, he cashed in on his potential in a way Jazz fans always love, beating the Lakers. In April Hayward came off the bench to play 35 minutes at L.A. He was asked to defend Kobe Bryant and contribute on offense, breaking out to score 22 points on 14 shots, grabbing six boards and dishing five dimes. Bryant went 6-18 from the field with seven turnovers. The Jazz won 86-85. Suddenly the future seemed bright for the young Hayward.
During his sophomore season, his improvement was noticeable, but not drastic. He had very little time with his coaches during the off-season thanks to the lockout. In 2011-12 season, opinion of Hayward was shifting. With Williams gone and a young team led by veterans Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, Hayward was expected to contribute in a big way. He did just that starting 58 games in the lockout shortened season, raising his scoring per 36 minutes up to 14 points and improving his overall game. He averaged an extra assist with each outing and had fewer turnovers while holding steady at 4.1 rebounds per 36 minutes.
In 2012-13 he really broke out and proved that he was a key player for the future of the Utah Jazz. Even though Hayward slid out of the starting rotation, only starting 17 of the 72 games he played, his scoring improved significantly.
He connected on 41.5% from three point range and hit 87.5% of his free throws. the boost from beyond the arc bumped his scoring per 36 minutes to 17 points.
Hayward’s scoring has improved each year since joining the Jazz, but that’s not even the best part of his game. He is well-rounded and is often asked to guard opponents best scorer. His length and quickness have allowed him to be a mainstay for the Jazz. With almost one block per game, he keeps the fan’s attention.
His performance and attitude have helped him become a fan favorite and team leader
“Fans are passionate in general, but Jazz fans absolutely love their team. I know that if I play hard and leave everything on the floor than fans will appreciate it. My effort has changed their opinion and it feels good,” Hayward said.
After some major reshuffling this summer Hayward is the oldest returning player in Utah. At the preseason opener he was the most cheered of all the Jazz players.
In a very short time he’s gone from a booed draft pick to a beloved cornerstone of the franchise. He’s very much in the works with Team USA and could be on next summer’s World Championship team. Now entering his fourth NBA season, Hayward has blossomed into a very nice player and is on the precipice of becoming a star.
Who knows what his future holds and how his game will change, but the evolution of Gordon Hayward has had a terrific opening act.