Two big things are happening right now. The first is that the NBA is in the new Golden Age of Small Forwards, you have your LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay types at the same time as the end of the careers of Trevor Ariza, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Metta World Peace, and so on. There are a number of Small Forwards all around the league doing great things on a nightly basis -- and a number of them are still clawing their way up to prominence. At this echelon you have Danilo Gallinari, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tobias Harris, and our very own Gordon Hayward. You can argue that Gordon has arrived, though his national Q rating isn't as high as it should be.
The second really big thing happening right now is that with a new school GM (Dennis Lindsey), and a new playbook that Quin Snyder brought to the team, we're seeing the evolution of some of the player archetypes, roles, and positions in Utah Jazz circles. Point guards now have the green light to fire off a lot of threes. Bigmen are training in practice to shoot the corner three. And the rest of the floor is wide open for wing players.
As one of the few players on the Jazz that did not get injured or missed any games yet this season, Gordon Hayward has been very important. Normally he's a big part of what the team is trying to do. During the crisis stages of having to pray third stringers can clock in for 15 to 20 minutes a night it was obvious that the team needed even more from Gordon than what he normally was supposed to do. Over the last few weeks I have been outright impressed. The wins haven't always been there but I don't think Gordon is to blame for that.
For the Jazz this season he ranks first out of all players in games played, games started, minutes played, minutes per game, total points, points per game, every single shooting and making value for totals or per game, is tops in assists per game and total, and first in total steals, but second in steals per game. The one place he's not dominating in right now is rebounds, but that's par for the course when you are on the same team as Rudy Gobert (10.4 rpg), Derrick Favors (8.5 rpg), and Trevor Booker (6.6 rpg). Gordon is a big part of what this team is trying to do, and he have the most measurable impact upon the box score as well.
He is averaging a career high in points per game (19.9), and near career highs in rebounds per game (0.1 off), and steals per game (0.2 off). If you look at numbers there are a lot of them to be happy about if you are a Gordon Hayward fan. But the question I have is what is Gordon Hayward going to end up being, and how does that track with the development of the position on the team level and on the league level.
If you look at the nitty gritty of Hayward, over the last three seasons he has had a USG% of .231, .262, and .263. That means that when he is on the floor he's taking control of that play over a quarter of the time. His DRB% over the same span has been .140, .140, and .139. That means that he's pulling down rebounds on defense and getting the ball in his hands directly at a pretty solid rate. It's not amazing or ground breaking, but he's at least finishing plays (that Delta D thing no one liked because it showed that Al Jefferson did some good things on defense). Probably the biggest worry is his assists have gone down, in reality, in the box score, and in the analytics. I guess playing so much of the season without your three best finishers (Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert) can be part of the reason why. But his AST% over the last three seasons has been .241, .217, and .185.
That's not the end of the world, and if you look at it somewhat objectively Gordon Hayward has been a prime time producer. He gets the ball in his hands, and he does a lot of stuff with it on offense. The USG 25% / AST 14% / DRB 13% group for wing players since 1989-1990 is a 30 player large club. Gordon is part of it. Here are the guys who have done this, and how many times since 89-90: LeBron James (12), Paul Pierce (10), Michael Jordan (9), Tracy McGrady (8), Antoine Walker (8), Carmelo Anthony (7), Kobe Bryant (6), Kevin Durant (5), Grant Hill (5), Vince Carter (4), Clyde Drexler (3), Tyreke Evans (3), Corey Maggette (3), Jamal Mashburn (3), Glenn Robinson (3), Rudy Gay (2), Paul George (2), James Harden (2), Gordon Hayward (2), Scottie Pippen (2), Jason Richardson (2), Bonzi Wells (2), Larry Bird (1), Caron Butler (1), Manu Ginobili (1), Larry Hughes (1), Richard Jefferson (1), Lionel Simmons (1), Dominique Wilkins (1), Metta World Peace (1). That's some really fine company to keep and I don't think many of us hold Gordon to such a high esteem.
If you bump up the minimum requirements to be USG 25% / AST 20% / DRB 15% you only get 13 different wing players: LeBron James (12), Grant Hill (5), Michael Jordan (5), Paul Pierce (5), Kevin Durant (3), Antoine Walker (3), Jamal Mashburn (2), Tracy McGrady (2), Scottie Pippen (2), Larry Bird (1), Kobe Bryant (1), James Harden (1), Larry Hughes (1).
Can Gordon reach these lofty heights? Regardless of efficiency or proficiency, being a 25 / 20 / 15 guy really means that you're a big deal for your club. You're the man who has the ball in his hands, either because of the sheer gravity of your talent and primacy on the team, or because you are just going after it with singular focus.
The Utah Jazz hope so. Over the last few decades the Jazz have gone almost full circle with what a small forward is supposed to do. In the Frank Layden remix of the Flex, the team played through Adrian Dantley. Dantley was a scorer who did almost all of his work within 14 feet of the basket -- either going towards it, posting up, or fading away from it. Dantley was a big time scorer too. In a Utah Jazz jersey the Hall of Famer averaged 28.0, 30.7, 30.3, 30.7, 30.6, 26.6, and 29.8 ppg over the peak of his career. With the Jazz he also averaged 19.0 ppg. He made shots. He took shots. He also killed it by getting to the Free Throw line over 10 times a game. Offensively he was such a load that teams had to send more guys at him, so much so that the Jazzman nearly averaged 4 dimes a game while still shooting it nearly 20 times a game. It's not the best ratio, but with how well he was scoring it was inefficient for him to pass it off to some of his teammates who were no where near as talented a scorer as he.
But this type of small forward wasn't going to last next to Karl Malone. Over the next few decades the front office tried to find the right fit, but never really seemed to get it. Bryon Russell was the first "three and D" small forward for the Jazz. He replaced interior focused David Benoit and generalist Tyrone Corbin as the new evolution of need based small forward change. Russell could defend most players on the court around his size, being able to body up Chris Webber and at times make like harder for Michael Jordan than anyone else on the roster could. But what really makes me appreciate him was how he became a shooter. He shot 9.1% from downtown as a rookie. Two seasons later he was a 35% shooter. And during his peak he was above 40% from outside. B-Russ was ahead of the curve, but his utility was maximized on a team where there was a supreme post presence, and a number of star players around him.
That's not the situation Andrei Kirilenko had to adopt when he was starting for Jerry Sloan. Kirilenko supplanted the Donyell Marshall plan, a tall small forward who could get offensive rebounds, and make threes. The very rare and somewhat less utilitarian Three and O (instead of Three and D). Andrei was a Swiss Army knife. He wasn't as much of a generalist as some other previous small forwards on the team, but he was an everything-alist. It's hard to find a more complete player in Jazz history, or at times in NBA history. After all, there are only so many players who have more than one 5x5 to their name. Andrei has three. It's hard to find plausible faults in this design, but Andrei was singular, no one else followed him. Those who did were specific role players -- Matt Harpring got rebounds and scored. C.J. Miles could catch fire or shoot himself into a slump. It's almost better that the Jazz didn't try to make other SFs do what Andrei did because the league wasn't heading into that direction. Andrei was at his best during the "Three and D" era of small forwards. And for much of his career he either couldn't reliably hit that three, or he wasn't on a team with a legit post up threat to necessitate it.
The next evolution is the primary player who is a small forward. They have to handle the ball. Score. Get to the line. Shoot the three. Draw the defense. Pass. And, well, get the occasional rebound here or there. It's almost the Dantley mold, but a more willing distributor with greater range. And that's what Gordon Hayward is right now. He's on the precipice of taking his stardom to the next level. He's a hair short of averaging 20 ppg. He's dropping bombs and making clutch shots (last night's shot excused for all the fouls he had to endure to even get the ball). He can get the rebound and run with it. He's finally a small forward who fits the era of small forwards the league is in.
As a result, he's the right fit for what this team needs, what he's able to give a team, and what the NBA has gravitated towards. That's a rare thing. But rarer still is the idea of transitioning from being a good small forward in this era to being a great one. Does he have another evolution left in him, or is he going to remain someone stuck between being a first or second option?