Gordon Hayward has come into his own in his second NBA season, starting more often than not for the Jazz, who have played good enough team basketball to contend for a playoff spot in the deep Western Conference despite a lack of star power.
His playing time has almost doubled from his rookie season and even more has been asked of Hayward since Utah lost Josh Howard to left knee surgery.
“Josh [Howard] is a great player for us and he brings a lot of things to the team, so we all have to step up a little bit,” Hayward told RealGM. “His scoring is something that we all have to collectively pick up, but he’s a good rebounder too from the wing position.”
Since Howard last played -- on March 18 against the Lakers -- Hayward is putting up impressive numbers. He is averaging 17.2 points and 5.8 rebounds in 37.3 minutes per game. His shooting percentages aren’t exceptional (44.8% from the field, 34.2% from three), but they are much better than earlier in the season when he struggled with his shot.
Improvement in all facets of the game is something that Hayward has focused on since the Jazz made him the ninth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. There is an added pressure that comes with being a Top-10 pick, especially when coming off an appearance in the National Championship against Duke in which he missed a potential game-winning, buzzer-beating half-court shot.
“I have definitely improved since I came into the league. That’s one thing that I want to keep on doing as I go along, just keep on improving as a player,” Hayward said. “My confidence is definitely up from last year. I just have to work on consistency and making sure that every night I go out there and play at a high level.”
Hayward didn’t expect to grow to 6-foot-8, which is why he refined his shooting and ball-handing skills. He’s a good rebounder for a player that cut his teeth as a guard, but his future is as more of a prototypical shooting guard. Hayward moves extremely well without the basketball and is well-versed at shooting off of screens.
While he garnered attention for his scoring in college, his toughness and defensively prowess were questioned as he prepared for the leap to the NBA. He isn’t going to get any votes for the All-Defensive team, but has a very good work ethic and the league recognized that by awarding him a roster spot in the Rising Stars Challenge.
“It was a good experience, especially since you only get two chances to play in the Rookie-Sophomore game,” he said. “I tried to make the most of it and it gives you confidence knowing that to compete in that game you have to be picked by the assistant coaches in the league. If you make it, you know you are respected around the league. It gives you confidence that hopefully you’ll make it to the next step.”
He was selected by Charles Barkley to face off against Shaquille O’Neal’s squad under the game’s new format this year. That sort of exhibition-style isn’t a perfect showcase for his skill set, but Hayward still represented himself well with 14 points (5-for-8 shooting) and three rebounds in 18 minutes.
Perhaps influenced by his own decision to draft him, but notable nonetheless, Barkley mentioned on the national telecast that he felt Hayward was one of the top two or three players in the showcase that had a chance to one day make the jump to the actual All-Star Game.
That’s high praise given the talent he shared the court with in Orlando -- John Wall, Evan Turner, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio and Greg Monroe.
“I think that’s the eventual goal,” Hayward said of one day making an All-Star team. “You just try to improve as a player and making it to that game is the first step. I’ve still got a lot of work to go, but hopefully I’ll get there."