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Gordon Hayward Key to Jazz Playoff Hopes

The Jazz can only going as far as Hayward goes this season. How far will he go?

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NBA: Utah Jazz at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been five years since the Jazz made the playoffs and seven since they made it past the first round. After a 2015-16 season that saw them go 40-42, if they want to reverse these trends, they will need a big year from Gordon Hayward. Unfortunately, Hayward won’t be available for the first 2-3 weeks of the season after dislocating a finger on his left (non-shooting) hand. Fortunately for the Jazz, they have seven-time NBA All-Star Joe Johnson ready to step in, and step up, until Hayward returns.

Hayward is, without a doubt, the Jazz’s best player and their first option on offense. He led the team in scoring last season with 19.7 points per game. He is also a key component in their defense, often drawing the assignment of guarding the opposing team’s best wing player and his impact on the court is certainly being noticed. He ranks seventh in a recent list of the projected top 10 small forwards in the league for the upcoming season. A list that also includes Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

While the Jazz will have to run the offense and defense through different players until Hayward’s return, the good news is that other players were already in the mindset that they needed to provide more help for Hayward on both ends of the court. This is particularly true for point guard George Hill. Last season, about 45 percent of Hayward’s baskets were assisted and while that puts him in the middle of the pack among the league’s top 25 scorers, it left him on the low end when compared to other small forwards. Hill knows that must change if the Jazz are going to make a playoff run.

When Hayward does return, most likely by mid-November, Jazz fans will hope to see the player who has only missed 13 of a possible 246 games since becoming a starter three years ago. Fans will also be looking to see a talented, two-way player whose scoring average has risen 3.5 points in that time (from 16.2 to 19.7) while he is often excelling at shutting down the other team’s best perimeter player. What they hope he isn’t, is a player whose finger issue lingers, causing him to struggle with his shot and ball handling (think Kobe Bryant and his finger issues.)

If Hayward can avoid the latter, the Jazz could finally have the first go-to, clutch player they haven’t seen since the days of Karl Malone and John Stockton. While his career scoring average isn’t at Malone’s level yet (25 ppg) he is certainly the player the Jazz look to when they need a big shot. It’s been a long time since Jazz fans saw Stockton knocking down clutch threes like he did in the 1997 Western Conference Finals to send the Jazz to the NBA Finals. For those days to return and new memories to be created, the Jazz need a healthy Hayward (shooting better than the 35 percent he hit from beyond the arc last season) on the court making the team run just as smoothly as a Stockton to Malone pick and roll for two.