With the onset of the NBA Playoffs, and the Jazz fate sealed, the eyes of the world turned their attention to the remaining few. Sixteen teams left in head-to-head series of varying degrees of competitiveness, and the internet ready to analyze, analyze, and scrutinize every bit of it. As the teams progressed through their series, hoops nerds latched on to the new batch of brazen, talented youth making their mark on these playoffs, and the future of the NBA. We've watched as Kawhi Leonard deftly guarded the "Splash Brothers", as his talent rich Spurs put a wrench in the fun of the emerging Warriors. We heard the clamor as Paul George proved himself a leader of his gritty Pacer squad, as they trudged their way through the Eastern Conference, leading to an impressive matchup between the rising star and the basketball god.
All the while Hayward, inextricably linked to his wing peers, enjoyed a Mexican vacation, copious amounts of FIFA and the tears of his friends, and eventually on to a training facility in Indianapolis, vowing to #improveeveryday. And he will. The baby-faced man has that midwestern work ethic coursing through his veins and a self developed loathing for losing; he will become a force. Mind you, he won't be the subject of the thousands of flashing lights of smartphone cameras that twinkle through an arena, but he will impact the league. The praise, scrutiny, and adornments will fall to George and Leonard.
While George is smooth, confident, and powerful, and Leonard is stoic, tough, and determined, Hayward is somewhere in the middle; a mixture of the two. Lest we forget (and we should always be reminded), context matters. In the case of these young wings, each has seen himself thrust into a very different role, on very different teams. George was needed to assume the role formerly filled by a similar player in Danny Granger. Leonard found himself immediately forced to play at a high level, with a variety of important mentors and teachers to forge that level of confidence.
Hayward, is still trying to determine his place in the NBA. In an organization known for its consistency, he has been in constant flux. Lessons in the school of hard knocks from the demanding and surly Deron Williams at the same time being molded by the legendary Jerry Sloan. Thrown into chaos and a complete shakeup of the team and a greater role, followed by a complete change in job description after being relegated to the bench in favor of one-after-another less talented veterans, until finally seizing favor with Ty Corbin... to the point that he was almost overplayed. Asked to fill so many different roles, the modest Hayward accepted them in the manner of an apprentice paying his dues until the time comes for him to assume the duties of the master.
Certainly, it is early in the careers of these 3 young stars. The winding road of the NBA career arc could lead them all in vastly different directions, and to vastly different final locations, than where they currently sit. The journey is part of the fun. For Hayward it begins this year. He will be expected to anchor the young core that figures to be the future of the newly reshaped Jazz. It will be his new duty to shape the team and help form a culture that fits his personalities and the fans they represent. I can't think of a more suited player to do it.
The pale, patchy bearded Hayward has been compared to everyone from Larry Bird to Manu Ginobili, and many in between. The similarities are there, sort of. From Bird we see the talented young man that led the improbable rise of a small Indiana school to the showcase of a national stage, against a college basketball powerhouse; and a painful defeat. On the court we see the tall, scrappy, wing with great shooting form and tenacious defense.
From Manu, the on-court similarities manifest themselves in the way he moves. With purpose. With wild, uncontrolled, flailing, twisting, gyrating, contorting, purpose. Moving from the perimeter, to the paint, with an eye on the restricted zone, and a will to get there by any means necessary. Its not always pretty, and it doesn't always end well, but its always fun.
In reality, we can pick little bits of pieces of the young man's game and if you sort of stretch the view and blur it a little bit, turn up the contrast, and turn down the gamma, we can make out these comparisons, but that's as far as it goes. But maybe that's what is so damn compelling about Hayward. He's a veritable Voltron of NBA players. Created in a secret government lab, never exposed to the sun (thus the pasty exterior), and assembled from the DNA of so many great wings. The exterior becomes one of the greatest assets. No one ever expects anything and are surprised by everything. Listen to the National Media's surprise at the chasedown blocks or the crowd after a ferocious dunk.
Taken as a whole, what you get is a player that people just like. Maybe its hard to put a finger on what it is, exactly, with Hayward. Whatever it is, its there. I question any individual's understanding of the deeper facets of the game of basketball when they don't have some appreciation for Hayward's game. There's something great about it. Perhaps the reason its difficult to point out is that its different for everyone. We take whatever we like from it. The beauty of the long distance three, the tenacity of fighting through a screen, the chaos of the drive through the lane, the precision of timing on a chasedown block. We can all take something from it, but for those of us that get it, we want to see more of it all.
Note: I have been immensely inspired by this post, by Tom Ziller, and the "Why We Watch" articles from The Classical. I would like to do one of these for at least the C4, but I guarantee nothing.