Gordon Hayward made a sensational first impression in Utah.
This season, as the new leader of the restructured Jazz, he has the opportunity to make a lasting one.
“The time is now for all our young guys,” Hayward says, “and I think we’re ready.”
In the 2010 NCAA Tournament at EnergySolutions Arena — before anyone around here knew much about him — Hayward led upstart Butler to victories over Kansas State and Syracuse and a berth in the Final Four.
Hayward’s performance helped solidify his status as a top NBA prospect, and former Utah general manager Kevin O’Connor ended up taking him with the No. 9 pick in the draft.
In his first three professional seasons, Hayward certainly proved he belongs in the league.
Last season, he averaged 14.1 points, even though he was rarely the primary option on offense and came off the bench 45 times in 72 games.
As a team, however, the Jazz were stuck in neutral. Despite winning 43 games and staying in playoff contention until the final night of the regular season, they were far from being a contender. As a result, new GM Dennis Lindsey decided to make major changes.
Four of last year’s top five scorers — Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams and Randy Foye — walked away as free agents or were traded.
Hayward inherited the role as team leader and, with Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter at his side, he became the centerpiece of a massive reconstruction project.
“We cleared the deck to allow all our young guys move into more prominent roles,” Lindsey said. “Many people, internally and externally, were anxious for that to happen. ...
“A big part of our decision-making process was to allow our young players more minutes and more minutes with the ball. Gordon was a huge factor in that decision to go young.”
The question, of course, is whether Hayward is ready for what the Jazz will ask of him. Can he become Utah’s primary scorer and facilitator on offense? Will he make his teammates better, like the league’s other top players?
“Frankly, we don’t know,” Lindsey said. “Players and teams are a lot like water. They find their level.”
Coach Tyrone Corbin is confident Hayward will handle his new tasks.
“His role has increased and we’re expecting him to step into it full time,” Corbin said. “He needs to be the guy, not just a guy. He needs to be the one to make plays and is a leader — a vocal leader at times, if that’s what we need.”
His teammates have already noticed a difference in Hayward.
“He came in a lot more serious,” Favors said. “Last year we both kind of took a backseat to Al [Jefferson] and Paul [Millsap]. But in this training camp, we came in as leaders. Gordon came [and] was vocal. He was serious about it. You could tell.”
Said John Lucas: “I think he’s our guy, along with Favors and Kanter. The sky’s the limit for him and, right now, everybody trusts him and everybody has his back.”
Corbin sees the confidence factor in Hayward growing every day, which if critical for a player who is expected to lead his teammates through the highs and lows of a grueling season.
“They’re all young guys and we’re young in this process,” Corbin said. “But I can see the guys respect what he does on the floor. When he goes out and does it time after time after time, that belief will become stronger.”
As Hayward embarks on his new challenge, Lindsey is careful to explain that he’s not expected to win games by himself.
“Many times in the media and among fans, they want to make it about one person,” he said. “But at the end of the day it’s about your group. How talented is your group? How do they fit with each other, on and off the court? How serious are they?”
Los Angeles Clipper coach Doc Rivers recalls his time with Paul Pierce in Boston and Tracy McGrady in Orlando. Neither team was championship-caliber despite the presence of a genuine All-Star player.
“There’s no one man,” Rivers said. “… You need a lot of guys to be a good team. But [Hayward] is one of those guys you can build a team around. He does everything well. He plays so hard.”
Hayward by the numbers
Gordon Hayward’s season-by-season statistics with the Utah Jazz:
Season Games Starts Minutes Points Rebounds Assists
2010-11 72 17 16.9 5.4 1.9 1.1
2011-12 66 58 30.5 11.9 3.5 3.1
2012-13 72 27 29.2 14.1 3.1 3.0