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(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

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The Basketball Player for Basketball Junkies

How did Gordon Hayward become an all-around weapon and one of the most coveted upcoming free agents without anyone noticing?

Gordon Hayward is a superstar in the making, hiding in plain sight. He plays for a small-market team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012. He doesn’t have a signature shoe. He doesn’t appear on national TV commercials. He had the chance to play for Team USA last summer, but chose to stay home to be with his family and newborn baby and to train for the upcoming season. Hayward made his first All-Star appearance this season, but his averages of 22.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game don’t scream stop what you’re doing and watch me.

While Hayward may not register on casual fans’ radars, he is a household name to people who never leave the house (because they are home watching basketball). Hard-core hoops fans who frequent /r/NBA and stay up late to watch games on League Pass know how great Hayward has become. He’s grown from a scrawny wing with a messy mop-top haircut to a chiseled, perfectly sculpted forward with a GQ hairdo. But Hayward has still labored in relative obscurity.

Hayward’s 22.1 points come on just 15.6 shots per game, which makes him an NBA oddity. The low shot-attempt number has more to do with his situation than his individual talent. Since 1946, there have been 489 instances in which a player averaged at least 22 points, per Basketball-Reference. Only 21 of those instances came when a player did it on 16 or fewer shots, which includes names ranging from Charles Barkley to Ray Allen to Corey Maggette — a list of lower-usage, high-scoring players who were efficient and feasted at the free throw line. Hayward will join that list if he maintains his current averages.

February offered a glimpse of what Hayward could be: He scored 25.5 points on 18.1 shots per game (both career-highs for a month) with an effective field goal percentage of 58 (the third-most-efficient scoring month of his career). I asked Hayward at All-Star Weekend if he’s capable of taking on that type of role over a full season. “I could,” he said bluntly. “I try to run what Coach Snyder has us run. Sometimes they need to me to score a little bit more. Sometimes within the flow of the game you don’t get as many looks. But I could.”

Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s motion offense emphasizes reads and unselfishness, which means the ball isn’t funneled to Hayward, or to any other particular player. The system works. The Jazz have the 12th-ranked scoring offense in the NBA despite suffering a plethora of injuries over the first few months of the season. “I think the beauty of our team is we’re very versatile, so we got a lot of different guys who can do a lot of different things,” Hayward said at All-Star Weekend. “I think that’s why we’ve been able to overcome some of the adversity and overcome the injuries — the depth that we have.”

The Jazz have depth, but Hayward is primed to take on a heavier load. He’s a well-rounded scorer, ranking in the 80th percentile or higher in the following Synergy scoring categories: pick-and-roll, spot-up, off-screen, transition, and cuts. Hayward scores 1.4 points per possession in transition, which leads the NBA of players to accumulate at least 100 possessions; and he tallies 1.04 points per possession in the half court, which ranks between Kyle Lowry and Stephen Curry, per Synergy.

There aren’t many players who do it all.

Hayward is adept at probing in the pick-and-roll to lace passes to teammates or to pick his spots as a scorer. He’s capable of pulling up and stroking 3s over screens or easing his way to inside the arc. As a young player, Hayward flashed the ability to score from all levels, but it wasn’t until he tightened his handle that he truly become a threat. Now that he has the ball on a string, Hayward is frequently in the paint.

“My ability to finish in the lane has been better this year as well,” Hayward wrote last month on his blog. “I think a lot of that is attributed to the work that I did this summer on footwork, on balance, and on core stuff in the weight room.” Hayward is shooting 69 percent from the restricted area this season after shooting slightly below 60 percent over his previous six years. The work he did in the weight room has helped him absorb contact at the rim. But it’s the footwork driving to the hole, and then the ability to lay up or dunk the ball with both hands that has enabled him to score at an elite rate inside.

Just as impressive as Hayward’s yams are the dribble moves and off-ball paths he takes that lead to the dunks.

Hayward looks like a tight end fighting at the line of scrimmage against a safety by using a V-cut to get Jabari Parker off balance, and then a subtle push-off to spring himself free. In the second play, Hayward perfectly times his cut, and then shows that the bounce is real. Snyder likes to get Hayward a live dribble by running him through mazes of screens or taking advantage of his instinctual ability to cut or slash.

“There’s certain nights where we need me to take some more shots, be more aggressive,” Hayward said. “There’s other nights where we have our whole squad and I can be a floor spacer and not necessarily have to play make as much.” This is true sometimes, but not always. There are instances where George Hill or Rodney Hood is going off, and Hayward can take on a lesser role. But there are instances, like their recent losses to the Thunder and Wolves, where he plays second (or even third) fiddle because the coaching staff relegates him to a spot-up shooting role. That’s not necessarily a misuse of Hayward, since he’s solid shooting spot-up 3s (37.9 percent, per SportVU), and he’s a force attacking closeouts, but if the ball is out of his hands, Jazz passers need to seek him out more since he’s so effective.

Teams historically need a standout star to achieve deep playoff runs. Paul George and Jimmy Butler were the hottest trade-market commodities, but now that the deadline has passed, Hayward might take the front seat as an unrestricted free agent this summer. Teams across the league know what Hayward is capable of. It’s not like Snyder doesn’t know what he has in Hayward, either. “I think that’s the primary thing that we’ve tried to avoid is determining his ceiling,” Snyder said last month. “Let’s have that bar be invisible. Let’s not set that bar. Let’s focus on the things he can do to be better, and the more you push up his floor, the more it drives up his ceiling, too.”

This season isn’t an aberration for Hayward. He’s improved each campaign of his career in one or multiple categories. The next stage is to improve as an isolation scorer so he’s an even more dynamic threat in end-of-game situations. But even if this is peak Hayward, he’s already at a stage few players are. Hayward has gotten himself to where he’s in the conversation for an All-NBA team.

That’s important for the Jazz. If Hayward is named to one of the three All-NBA teams, Utah would be able to offer a five-year extension worth roughly $220 million. But as great as Hayward has been, there are only six slots for forwards, and it’s improbable he makes the cut. LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are absolute locks. Kevin Durant, despite his injury, should also be. Giannis Antetokounmpo should be, too. If Anthony Davis is considered a forward, there’s your fifth. Hayward would compete with Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Paul Millsap, and Paul George. It’s possible, but doubtful, that Hayward gets that spot.

The Jazz can still actually offer more than the competition, even without the mega-max. “Let’s be frank, we have an incumbent advantage,” Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey told The Salt Lake Tribune last week. “We have a fifth year and higher raises and a state that isn’t very expensive to live in.” Lindsey is right, but their advantage isn’t significant. Without All-NBA honors, the most the Jazz can offer Hayward is about $180 million over five years, while another team can offer roughly $130 million over four years. Those deals seem vastly different, but to paraphrase Dave Chappelle, the only difference between having $180 million and $130 million is $50 million. Anyone would want that money, but lifestyle and financial security differences are small.

Besides, the fifth year the Jazz can offer is inessential. The extra security is a perk, but for the first four years, Utah’s deal would be worth roughly only $6 million more. Hayward would preferably want a player option for the fifth year, so that he can enter free agency as soon as he’s eligible for the 10-year veteran extension worth 35 percent of the salary cap. Utah’s income tax is average, though even if it were the lowest in the country, it wouldn’t matter — Hayward is after a title, not a home.

Lindsey spoke to Jazz fans through the media last week using a 418-word public plea to signal that the front office is doing “everything possible to keep a good player.” If it seems random for a general manager to spill his entire pitch to his star free agent for no apparent reason at the beginning of March, it’s because it is. More than anything, Lindsey was preaching to fans that it’s in Hayward’s hands, not Utah’s. “You’re hopeful that just operating from a value-based standpoint, operating from a position of truth and humility will be enough,” Lindsey said. The irony is that Lindsey didn’t utter a word about championship aspirations. He focused on ancillary factors like the roster construction enabling Hayward to shine, the extra money they can offer, the franchise’s facilities, and their excellent head coach. Maybe title hopes are something that go without saying, but you’d think it’d be the main focus of any mission statement, especially when the Jazz have the NBA’s fourth-best net rating and sixth-best record. They’re not quite elite — they’re a tier below. Hayward can find those other bonuses elsewhere, if they even matter to him at all. “It comes down to where I can compete for a title,” Hayward told ESPN’s Zach Lowe. “Where I live — that doesn’t affect me. The limelight doesn’t matter to me. I just want to make a run at it.”

Lindsey’s public pitch came in the wake of George Hill’s refusal to restructure and extend his contract. League sources told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon that Hill was told he might be a max-contract player this summer, which shouldn’t surprise anyone after seeing the money tossed around last summer to the likes of Timofey Mozgov and Tyler Johnson. All it takes is one team to fall in love with a player. Lowe reported that “Hill may wait out Hayward’s decision” since they’re close and share Indiana-based trainers. Hayward’s relationship with his closest friend on the team, Joe Ingles, could also play a factor in his decision: Hayward and Ingles share an agent, and Ingles will be a restricted free agent this summer.

Virtually any team with cap space should pursue Hayward, but considering his desire to contend for a title, it’s difficult to pinpoint a situation better than the one he’s in now. The only realistic team with max cap space and a less treacherous road to the NBA Finals than the Jazz is the Celtics. Brad Stevens coached Gordon Hayward for two years at Butler and the two have a bond that extends back to Hayward’s high school days. There have been rumblings about the duo reuniting ever since Stevens took the Celtics job in 2013; if there’s one looming threat to Utah for Hayward, it’s Boston.

The Jazz hope it doesn’t come to that and that they can convince Hayward to stay. Hayward is already an All-Star and there’s no reason to believe he’s done getting better. If Hayward continues making annual strides, he might even be the key to unlocking Utah’s title chances. They’re on the cusp, and their incumbent superstar is still blossoming.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Hayward doesn’t have a shoe deal; he doesn’t have a signature shoe.

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