Gordon Hayward Isn’t Going Anywhere

13.6 seconds remain in the biggest moment in your life. Over 70,000 fans are packed into Lucas Oil Stadium, with an additional twenty-four million watching on national television. Trailing the Blue Blood by one point, you receive the inbounds pass at top of the key. At that moment, nothing else matters. Your conference player of the year is thrown out the window. The 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds you averaged that year as a 6-foot-8, 210 pound sophomore is insignificant compared to the moment. You’re vulnerable, on a stage you were unprepared for, in a moment you’ve been laying out for yourself since you were alone in your drive way at eight years old.

***

However, Gordon Hayward has been there before. Not in front of an audience of millions, and not for a chance to knock off Duke for a National Championship ring. Nevertheless, this wasn’t the first big shot Hayward has been asked to take. In his senior year at Brownsburg High School in Indiana, Brownsburg trailed Marion High by one with 2.1 seconds remaining in the state championship. This moment was different. The football pass was lost in traffic briefly. When the ball ends up in Hayward’s hands right under the basket, everything is reactionary — put the ball up as quickly as possible. Hayward made the layup and Brownsburg won State. Now, Hayward has one of the best young basketball minds in the country drawing a play for him, giving him all the power in the world to go and make a program-defining play.

***

“People said it was a Cinderella story. In our eyes we didn’t picture it like that at all… we came into the national title game expecting to win.” — Gordon Hayward

Near center court, the golden boy picks up Hayward. Standing 6-foot-8, the five star recruit from Medord, Oregon is used to these moments. In his four years at Duke, Kyle Singler has had the opportunity to play on this stage. In isolation, Hayward moves quickly to his left hand. “I like going left more than anything, but they cut me off,” Hayward remembers. Nearing the three point line he goes left to right, behind the back, catching Singler off-balance. He uses that brief opening to take the ball straight to the rack. Entering the paint Hayward is met by the help defender. 7 foot 2 Brian Zoubek stretches out to greet him at the right of the crease. Hop-stepping away from Zoubek, leaning back as if he’s mimicking Kobe’s signature baseline fadeaway, Hayward gets a great look at the basket with seven seconds remaining.

***

“Ironically, last year when we’re playing the Jazz he hits the shot — the exact same shot,” says forty year-old Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens. Stevens coached Hayward for two years at Butler before jumping to the NBA three years after Hayward did the same. However, the relationship between the two goes much deeper than the two years in Indianapolis. Hayward was not heavily recruited early in his high school career. While he later was pursued by Michigan, Purdue, and Purdue, first-year head coach Brad Stevens was the one of the first people to see his potential.

Gordon Hayward nearly quit basketball his freshman year of high school. He stood 5-foot-11 at the time and was blossoming into an all-state level tennis player. Unexpectedly, Hayward had a late growth spurt. He ballooned to 6-foot-4 as a sophomore and by his junior year he was measuring at 6-foot-7. Even then, he was a three-star shooting guard recruit according to Rivals.com. Hayward did not make the Top 100 rankings on either ESPN or Rivals. These same rankings had Samardo Samuels, BJ Mullens, Scotty Hopson, and Willie Warren in the top ten. Stevens described young Gordon Hayward as skinny and long, “he was probably 6-foot-7, 180 [pounds] sopping wet.”

***

His jumper is right on the money — just a hair long. Careening off the back iron, Zoubek snatches up the rebound and is fouled. With 3.6 seconds remaining, trailing by one, Butler sends the 55% FT shooter to the line. The first shot is perfect. Duke goes up 2 points. “He misses the [second] free throw and from then it’s playing off natural instincts,” Hayward said. Dribbling quickly up the court he pulls up for one final heave — a half-court shot with the National Title on the line. Lucas Oil Stadium, packed 70,000 strong, was deathly still. In what seems like eternity the shot goes off the backboard in the perfect spot… the heave redirects off the glass to the front rim, where it slowly rolls back to the deck.

Hayward: In that split second, you’re given that incredible rush of impossible optimism. I really thought it was going in.
Clark Kellogg: From our angle, it looked like that ball was going in.
Mike Krzyzewski: I’ll remember that play as much as any shot in any game my whole career.

***

Hayward is 27 now; seven NBA seasons separate him from that moment at Lucas Oil Stadium. He’s grown from the skinny rookie out of a small college in the Midwest to a top-15 player in the NBA; he is the unquestioned leader in the Jazz locker room. Like many players that enter the league at such a young age, Hayward has truly grown up on the court in Utah. Unlike most top-15 NBA players, Hayward has done so without the media attention and scrutiny that accompanies larger league markets.

No longer are we seeing the passive NBA-sophomore that allowed Delonte West to give him a wet-willie on the court, only to walk away without any confrontation. Now we are witnessing grown-man, playoff Gordon Hayward. This man, when pushed in the back by Chris Paul after souring for a rebound late in the 4th quarter of game 5 (on the road), followed Paul to the floor. He refused to relinquish the ball well after the whistle was blown, wrestling it away from Paul before walking away screaming the kind of things that make your mother send you text messages after the game expressing her disappointment.

Chris Paul is renowned for his fiery, at times downright childish, tantrums on the court. However, watching Hayward being pulled away from Paul, motherfucking him on the way to the sideline was shocking… but FUCKING SPECTACULAR. It’s this type of aggression and passion that teams need form their superstar to win in this league — the strain of blistering emotion that can rally a team from the wrenches of defeat, or lock them in for the best defensive possession of their lives.

***

Despite being swept by the Monstars — oops the Warriors, my bad — in the second round of the playoffs, Hayward is coming off the best season of his career. This summer Hayward will be making one of the most challenging decisions of his life. He will enter unrestricted free agency after a year in which he averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists while shooting .471/.398/.844. Hayward has a player option for the 2017–2018 season with the Jazz for nearly $17 million, an offer that he will most certainly opt out of regardless of his decision to return to Utah. With his seven years of NBA experience, Hayward can agree to a contract that will pay him the max — 30% of the salary cap. Due to the rising cap, Hayward will be looking at a contract in the range of $30 million per year.

Re-signing with the Jazz would mean Hayward spending all of his 20s, and into his early 30s in Salt Lake City. Compared to the buzzing nightlife and social scene found in the larger markets, Salt Lake brings a much different atmosphere. To many young, single NBA players this isn’t an ideal situation compared to New York City, L.A., or the Bay Area. However, unlike what was speculated as a reason Kevin Durant left a similar atmosphere in Oklahoma City, the small-town, family-oriented feel of Salt Lake City may not bother Gordon Hayward. At 27, Hayward is married and a father of two. This not mean that Hayward doesn’t want to wake up to a beachfront view in Manhattan Beach, reunite with his college coach in Boston, or return home to Indiana. But for now, Salt Lake is home.

***

Not everyone comes into the league with LeBron’s body, CP3’s vision, or Curry’s shooting touch. Hayward had to prove his worth to the Jazz. He’s a tireless worker. David Locke, the radio voice of the Jazz, told the story that even after a very good 2016 season, one in which Hayward averaged 19.7 points, 5 rebounds, and 3.7 assists, he was not content. Hayward wanted to be an All-Star. As Locke described, Hayward went to the coaching staff and told them he wasn’t good enough. “It’s the ultimate example of what makes greatness in the NBA,” says Locke. “You’re already incredible, and you decide it’s not good enough.”

Hayward has improved every season in the NBA. This year he recorded career highs in PER (22.2), true shooting percent (.595), rebound percent (9.0), usage (27.6%), and win shares (10.4). He was one of ten players to be in the top twenty in both offensive and defensive win shares. The other nine are James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Kawahi Leonard, Steph Curry, Russel Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeAndre Jordan, and Hawyard’s teammate Rudy Gobert. Hayward is in an elite class of two-way NBA players, an invaluable trait in a league of players elite at a single thing.

After putting on the necessary weight (he’s now listed at 226), Hayward is an underrated NBA defender. Having Rudy Gobert, arguably the league’s best rim protector, behind you helps. Nevertheless, Hayward often draws the toughest defensive assignment night in and night out. He’s expected to man up Kevin Durant then run down on offense and lead the Jazz in scoring. There’s a short list of players expected to do both — Kawhi, Butler, LeBron, Paul George. Even LeBron has scoring help with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

***

Hayward is used to being the hometown superstar. The same kid that hit the shot to win Brownsburg the state title in 2008, played for the NCAA National Championship two years later at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, just 30 minutes from where he grew up and 18 minutes from Butler. The day before the National Championship was Easter Sunday. Hayward attended church with his parents in Brownsburg, where he found himself not only signing bulletins after the service, but mentioned in the pastors message. The Monday morning of the title game, Gordon and a few others were bussed back to Butler to attend their 8am classes.

Hayward: When I walked in, my professor looked at me and told me to go home.
Chase Stigall (a freshman guard for Butler): I walked in and my professor said ‘what are you doing here?’

Will this hometown feeling that Hayward is so accustomed to affect his free agency this summer? It’s hard to believe that it won’t be a major factor. He could stay in Utah and easily become one of the three most beloved players in franchise history. Hayward has lived in Salt Lake City since he was drafted in 2010, and is now raising two daughters in the city. It’s his home. Besides logistical reasons, due to the way the CBA is arranged, Utah can also offer an additional contract year to Hayward compared any other team. It may be hard for him to pass up an additional $30 million in guaranteed money.

If Hayward were to resign with the Jazz, their free agency picture is still murky. Do they resign George Hill as well, or do they look outward and try to lure Kyle Lowry? Is Daunte Exum ready to take over that role? Can the Jazz afford to resign Joe Inglas or will he be a casualty of signing two max players? Could we see a reunion of aging Paul Millsap, now 31, with his former team? Another option would simply be to blow it all up, doing sign-and-trade, sending Gordon Hayward to Boston for two Brooklyn picks. If you fail to attract a top-tier free agent, in a Western Conference dominated by the Warriors, taking the risk of blowing it up and starting over with young talent could be right move.

***

It’s hard. I had a chance to make history. I wish I could shoot it again and get another chance to win the game. That’s something I’ll always carry with me.

Retreating to the locker room as confetti fell down on the Blue Devils still sticks with Hayward. That quote was as recent as two years ago, in a blog post on his personal website. Now, things are changing for Hayward. This season he led the Jazz to the playoffs for the first time since 2012, when they were swept in the first round by the Spurs. This season they made a national impact, going on the road to Staples Center to beat the Clippers in the only game seven of the first round of the playoffs. Hayward played over 42 minutes in that game, recording 8 rebounds to accompany his 26 points. The Jazz outscored the Clippers by 13 with Hayward on the court.

Hayward has many chances ahead of him to make history. After jumping on the national scene and securing the fifth seed in the west, there are ample reasons to believe the Jazz have nowhere to go but up if they retain Hayward. They have a talented young core, and should be able to attract at least the second-tier of free agents this summer. The Clippers are clearly on the downturn and the Spurs, even with Kawhi, should show signs of aging eventually. If Hayward decides to leave Utah, he would likely go to another winning team with a shot at contention. This is not the last we have heard from Gordon Hayward.