April 5, 2011. A Jazz team simply trying to build momentum as they approached the off-season faced off against a Lakers team just cruising until the playoffs started. Not exactly a key match up for either team. Irrelevance of the game aside, the Jazz were playing in L.A. against a team that they had gotten used to losing to in a place where they almost never won.
It was during this seemingly insignificant game that we saw a spark of promise–even brilliance–from 21-year-old Butler hero Gordon Hayward. Hayward went toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant, and by most accounts Hayward outplayed the seasoned all-star, besting him in FG %, rebounds, steals, blocks and points. It was Hayward who guarded Bryant during the final play of the game, with the Lakers trailing by a point, when Bryant lost control of the ball and the Jazz left the Staples Center with a rare win, 86-85.
After the game, Bryant said of Hayward, “I’m very, very fond of him,” which might be one of the weirdest things we have ever heard Bryant say.
But he continued: “He’s a very skilled, all-around player. I think he’s going to have a very bright future in this league. He reminds me of a more talented Jeff Hornacek. Jeff couldn’t put the ball on the floor as well as [Hayward] can.” At that point, it was hard to tell if Bryant was just messing with Jazz nation. Better than Hornacek? We could only hope.
A couple weeks later, the Jazz closed the season against the playoffs-bound Denver Nuggets, winning 107-103, and Hayward did not disappoint. Hayward went 12-17 from the field, including five 3-pointers, 5-5 from the stripe, and he had a career-high 34 points. After a tumultuous season, including the biggest post-all-star break collapse any team has suffered in the history of the NBA, Jazz fans were in a celebratory mood. With streamers falling from the rafters, and a smiling Al Jefferson hugging teammates, you could almost hear Kevin O’Connor sighing in relief: “We didn’t waste our lottery pick!”
Yessir, things were looking good for the Jazz, and especially for Mr. Hayward.
Fast-forward to the 2011-2012 season. Through 13 games Hayward has struggled to put the ball in the basket, which has been evident not only in lower FG percentage, but also in a more timid Hayward near the rim. Hayward has developed a frustrating habit of driving within a few feet of the basket and then dishing it to a teammate who doesn’t have as good a look as Hayward did. That is a player who does not want to shoot the ball.
And it’s not only when he drives to the basket. Against the Clippers Tuesday night, Hayward found himself with the ball and a clear 3-point look with the closest defender at least six feet away. Hayward hesitated a second and then flipped the ball to Devin Harris as the crowd began to make noise, urging Hayward to take that shot. Harris quickly zipped the ball back to Hayward, who was still open, and he begrudgingly hefted the 3-pointer, which missed badly.
One can only hope that Hayward is simply suffering from a textbook sophomore slump. Compared to his rookie year, so far this season Hayward is down six percent in FG % and is down a disconcerting 16 % from 3-point land. The good news is that, well, it’s not all bad news for Hayward. While his offensive production is down, his FT %, rebound and block averages are up slightly, and he’s averaging 2.5 more assists per game this season than last, though that might have more to do with his hot-potato offensive strategy than any conscious effort to find open teammates.
Last night’s game against the Clippers may have been his poorest showing of the season, as Hayward finished 0-4 from the field with three rebounds and three points off of free throws. No assists, no steals, and no blocks. While things have gone much better than expected for the Jazz through the first 13 games of the season, it seems that their success has had little to do with last year’s rising star. I sincerely hope Hayward can find his confidence soon, because the Jazz’s February schedule does not look nearly so kind as their January schedule has been.