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Utah Jazz Player Previews: Gordon Hayward

Who is this guy?

Too big yo. G-Unit. G-Time. OG-Time. Flash. White. Unathletic.

Whatever you want to call him, it doesn't matter. He's taken flak for eating at Olive Garden in the heart of one of the biggest cities in the world. He took more flak over the summer for playing in a professional Starcraft II tournament. Of course we all know that he was booed when he was selected with the #9 pick -- the unprotected Knicks pick for crying out loud. He drew the ire of Deron Williams for not running the right route on a fast break. Oh, and there was a rap song.

No matter. All of it. It doesn't appear to affect him one bit. He keeps going out there playing basketball unfazed by the criticism, comments, and jokes.

In just one short year, he went from almost-NCAA champion to the face of an NBA franchise. When you look at his path over the past 18+ months, it's remarkable. He led the Butler Bulldogs to upsets over the 1-seed Syracuse Orangemen, the 2-seed Kansas State Wildcats (both coincidentally in the ESA) before knocking off fellow 5-seed Michigan State to make the NCAA finals. That team came this close to being the first 5-seed to win the NCAA tournament.

That performance along with his workout with Kevin O'Connor and interview was enough to convince the Jazz front office to take him with the #9 pick which was about 3-6 picks higher than where he was projected. In typical Jazz fan fashion, this led to a chorus of boos at the draft party and left many scratching their heads.

#improveeveryday. That's Hayward's daily twitter affirmation. If you look at his numbers from last season, you'll see that nearly every stat went up as the season wore on. He became more confident in his shot but wasn't aggressive enough on offense. Often times he would end up deferring back to the point guard and resetting the play. That too improved over time, especially after Deron Williams was traded. He took on a larger role with the team after that and the added injuries towards the end of the season resulted in a sharp increase in Hayward's minutes.

Now he's become one of the faces of the Jazz franchise. When the Jazz held the open house to reveal the new alternate jersey, the two players featured on the backdrop were Derrick Favors and Hayward. He's also featured on the Jazz pocket schedule with a picture that looks as if he's cradling a plasma ball instead of a basketball.

The future. The face of the franchise. Whatever you want to call him. It doesn't matter. He'll continue to ignore all of it and keep playing.

More after the jump.

Our hopes, dreams and deepest fears:

For me, it was all about a smirk.

It was the Lakers game last April, when the Jazz finally won behind Gordon Hayward's 22 points. It was a career high at that point. He was shooting, passing, driving, making things happen. Guarding Kobe, making the punk fall down, smacking the ball out of his hands. He looked like the second coming of Ginobli during the Dunk.

And all that was great.

But for me it was a smirk.

It was a timeout. Hayward had just scored a few points in a row. And as the Jazz went back to Ty for the huddle, Gordon looked over his shoulder and smirked at the Lakers bench.

I can't believe those guys thought they could guard me.

That's what I heard, anyway. Who knows what he was thinking, but that one moment won me over. I mean, who has the balls to do stuff like that? Larry Bird did, of course. Probably more than any player ever. Jordan did. And sometimes guys do it who have no business doing so-Jet Terry is a recent, successful example.

More than anything else, though, it showed confidence. And that's what Gordon Hayward lacked for much of the early season. That's what started growing, bit by bit, from February on. And that's what erupted in the Lakers game and seemed to crystalize a few days later against the Nuggets.

In an odd way, Gordon Hayward defies all the rhetoric. Supposedly low on athleticism, and weak defensively (draft day analysis), these turned out to be some of his strengths. Particularly against shooting guards, he's got the physical tools to be a nightmare. He's quick enough on both offense and defense, but lanky, tall, and long. He's already developed some really nice playmaking chemistry with Favors. He can shoot, he can drive, he can go baseline (though honestly, I think he likes the baseline a bit too much). He can curl, he can spot up. Once he got the confidence, once he got the know-how of what the Jazz were doing, he looked really good.

I loved it last year when he felt irritated about the team's lack of defense. If that isn't what we want from our leader, I don't know what anyone's looking for.

And most encouraging at all, those last few games really weren't sudden jolts of quality play that came out of nowhere. They were the culmination of a season that started difficultly for him. He struggled in the first games, and even got the star PG to throw the ball at his head in frustration. But he got better. Bit by bit, he got better. His minutes went up; his shooting went up; and soon his shooting became ridiculous. His minutes increased, his success increased and then ... finally given the minutes and big role, he came through. If anyone could be said to have seized the moment, he did last spring.

We don't really know what to expect from him this year. The magic of those final eight games were still a small sample size to call his continued success guaranteed. And we haven't seen him play enough in a big role to know what he is. Is he a scorer? A playmaker? A shooter? A slasher? Most likely he's some combination of all the above, but exactly how they'll be put together remains to be seen.

But when I look back over the games from last April, I see a lot to be excited about. His chemistry with Favors was beautiful. His shot was pretty. Everything suddenly looked really good about him.

And most of all, he had the confidence, the guts, the sheer balsy arrogance to smirk at the defending champs as he made big stops against Kobe and hit the big shots that sent the Lakers searching for answers.

I can't believe those guys thought they could guard me.

-Jon Midget, aka Yucca

How does he fit?

Gordon Hayward went from being booed and being the "prototypical, crappy Jazz white guy" to the most exciting player on the team in the span of about 3 months. It's amazing this kid hasn't had a mental breakdown with the roller coaster ride he was on last season. The rookie ups and downs have actually appeared to have the opposite affect on Hayward, as he seems more seasoned and poised than a player his age ought to be. At least that's the case in interviews. Hayward is reserved and humble, but I don't use the term "face of the franchise" lightly. Hayward will most likely get the most media attention, sell the most jerseys, etc. Other than Favors, Hayward is the next safest Jazzman. He will be here for the foreseeable future. Hayward is a long, tall, deceptively athletic forward, who could probably play 4 positions. He reminds me of a taller more athletic version of Manu Ginobili. Again, I am saying that Hayward is or will be as good as Ginobili, but am just describing potential ability.

Like Favors, Hayward is part of the future. He will be here as long as he wants to be. It will be interesting to see what kind of contract Hayward will demand in two seasons when he is up for an extension. My guess is that it will be a smaller contract than the one Favors commands. Maybe $10 million a year or so. And that is the real task that the front office will be faced with in the upcoming years: keeping their stars in Utah by offering them enough money, but also paying the right guys the right amount. The front office has their work cut out for them big time. They need to have the talent hierarchy right. In my opinion, as of now, Favors is 1 and Hayward is 1b.


Why do we like this guy?

I remember livid Jazz fans calling for KOC's head 18 months ago when he drafted Gordon Hayward and then asked fans to reserve judgment for two years. I also remember how just a short while later, someone started a thread on SLC Dunk for fans to apologize to Hayward. From a somewhat "inauspicious" start to the season, to thrilling his hometown crowd with a monstrous dunk, to thrilling Jazz fans with his performance in LA at the end of the season, Hayward's rookie season drew as much attention for his on-court development as his off-court dining choices.

Many fans have already penciled Hayward and Favors in as the future of the Jazz, and he's harmless-looking enough that he is able to fill the void left by Kyle Korver's departure in the pre-teen crowd. He's deceptively athletic, has a high basketball IQ, and doesn't get into trouble off the court (Indiana is a time zone ahead and he goes to bed early when all his friends are asleep. He said this; I am not making this up), which is a luxurious combination of qualities that has not frequently been found in Jazz draft picks. What can I say? All indications point to sunny days ahead.