Source: USA TODAY
SALT LAKE CITY — Al Jefferson left for the Charlotte Bobcats and Paul Millsap left for the Atlanta Hawks in the offseason, and suddenly, Gordon Hayward became the Utah Jazz’s main offensive weapon.
The go-to-guy. The player opponents focus on stopping.
And that is all new to Hayward, the 23-year-old, fourth-year guard who starred for now-Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens at Butler.
“We’re putting a lot of pressure on him,” Jazz coach Ty Corbin said. “We’re asking him to do a lot of different things for us. He’s one of the focal guys for the other team to stop. He’s getting defensive schemes set up to slow him down and slow us down.”
The new role has resulted in increased minutes and shots for Hayward, who has struggled with his shooting in the first five weeks of the season as he adjusts to an increased role.
“It’s a bigger role, and I accept the challenge for sure,” Hayward told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s exciting to have that opportunity in front of you. I’m doing a better job facilitating and making plays for others. I just haven’t shot the ball well this season. Hopefully that picks up and I’ll be doing all right.:”
Hayward, a tad weary of talking about his slump, is shooting 39.3% from the field and 28.9% on threes. He finished 1-for-17 in a 105-98 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans and 5-for-23 in a 91-82 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
“It’s just not going down right now for whatever reason,” he said. “It’s happened throughout my career so far in the NBA where I start off slow. I don’t know what that’s about. I have confidence and it’ll fall eventually for me.”
Last November, Hayward shot 40.7% from the field, including 29.6% on threes. He finished at 43.5% from the field and 41.5% on threes.
There is no doubt the Jazz are asking Hayward to do more. His points (16.7), rebounds (5.4) and assists (5.1) per game would be career-bests. He embraces the role.
“That’s what I view as my best attribute — making plays for others and being unselfish,” Hayward said. “That’s what I like doing more than anything, passing the basketball. It’s exciting when you find guys open for points.”
Hayward’s usage rate, the percentage of a team’s offensive possessions a player users while on the court, also is up, to 24.6% from 21.7% last season.
On offense, he plays three positions: point guard, shooting guard and small forward. He brings the ball up the court and sets up the play. He runs off screens on the baseline trying to get free for shots and does more work off the dribble and penetrating into the lane.
“Gordon’s a smart basketball player,” Corbin said. “He knows how to read situations.”
Much is expected of Hayward. He was a member of the U.S. select team which scrimmaged against the U.S. Olympic team in 2012 and was among the pool of players invited to Las Vegas in July in preparation for next summer’s FIBA World Cup in Spain.
Hayward earned the respect of Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant during those Summer 2012 scrimmages.
“It’s an honor for sure, and it’s good to see people respect the work that you put in to get better,” Hayward said. “You’re there for a reason, and that’s the hard work paying off but it also shows how much more work there is to be done.”
The Jazz have struggled, and it bothers Hayward.
“It’s definitely frustrating losing,” he said. “I’ve haven’t lost that much in my basketball career. It’s been a new experience one and a difficult one — a lot of sleepless nights.”
On those restless nights, he will watch video of a loss on the team plane or at home.
“Just looking for things that I could’ve done and we could’ve done to help us win. I hate losing,” Hayward said.
The return of rookie point guard Trey Burke has taken some pressure off Hayward, and the Jazz have won three of their past five games.
“We had a ton of guys injured, we were very confident when we got everybody back, that we would be playing a lot better, mainly because Gordon would start getting easier shots and not work as hard,” Jazz guard Richard Jefferson said.
Hayward briefly emerged from his slump with a season-high 29 points on 12-for-18 shooting in Monday’s impressive 109-103 victory against the Houston Rockets.
The Burke-Hayward backcourt is attracting attention, not only from opponents but for what is possible this season and in the future.
“You see that talent and the potential is definitely there,” Hayward said. “It’s just a matter of us continuing to work hard and utilize the potential and turn it into something special. There’s a lot of talent in the league, and a lot of guys who just don’t pan out. That’s always in the back of my mind. It’s just not going to be given to us.”
While embracing and adjusting to his new role, he is also turning into Utah’s vocal leader. He was bothered that teammates forgot to set screens or didn’t know what play to run and said so.
“I got after some guys during the game,” Hayward said. “If we don’t execute our offense, we’re not good enough yet individually to take guys one-on-one. When we start standing around, it makes it difficult for everybody. We have to continually move and make sure we’re running our plays.”
The question is, will Hayward be the go-to-guy and vocal leader for the next several seasons? The Jazz and Hayward field to reach a deal on an extension at the start of the season, and Hayward can become a restricted free agent at the end of the season.
Will Stevens and the Celtics try to land Hayward? If Hayward agrees to an offer from another team, the Jazz can match and retain Hayward.
“I’m a Jazz guy and love being here. You just play basketball and that stuff will take care of itself,” he said.
SPLASHY NETS: Mistake hire led to Frank demotion
Ever since moving to Brooklyn, the Nets have done most everything with a splash and at a considerable expense.
There’s nothing wrong with that — the arena is fantastic, they assembled a big-name $102 million roster and hired franchise favorite Jason Kidd to coach.
Big splash, big dollars.
But not everything needs to be a big splash.
The decision to hire Lawrence Frank as an assistant to Kidd stands out as one of those instances where a splash was not required. The opposite is true. An understated hire would have eliminated what happened earlier in the week, when Kidd removed Frank from the bench and demoted him to writing reports because of “philosophical differences.”
Look at what the Boston Celtics did after they hired Brad Stevens, a great college coach but with no NBA experience. They hired longtime assistant coach Ron Adams, a guy who no longer has head-coaching aspirations and can help Stevens without the new coach feeling like his power was usurped.
Foresight was necessary to prevent an embarrassing situation for the 5-14 Nets, who have been a huge disappointment.
Let’s start with this premise: Frank probably still has head-coaching aspirations and is a better coach than Kidd. Guaranteed, that was apparent to players, other assistants and Kidd. Kidd didn’t need that. Too many egos.
The new coach was all for bringing in Frank, and needed a trusted top assistant who Kidd didn’t feel threatened by and who didn’t pose a threat. Kidd needed a mentor and guiding coach who could help an inexperienced coach through difficult situations and times.
That’s not what Kidd got. The Nets and Kidd didn’t understand that.
Instead, they went for the big splash. Toss out the life preservers.
HUSTLING HOWARD: Rockets aren’t slowing for Dwight
When the Houston Rockets signed center Dwight Howard, it was natural to question how Howard would fit into Houston’s fast-paced offense. Rockets coach Kevin McHale loves for his players to get the ball and go.
But would a big man who loves to get the ball in the low post and pick-and-roll situations slow down the Rockets?
After 20 games, the Rockets are playing at a faster pace this season (99.33 possessions per 48 minutes) than they did last season (98.64 possessions per 48 minutes).
“For a big guy, he can run himself,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “So as they come down the floor, if the first opportunity isn’t there, he’s coming down to clean up plays. As athletic as he is, they can find him in the paint. I don’t see him slowing it down at all.”
With Howard on the floor, the Rockets average 98.03 possessions per 48 minutes and, with Howard on the bench, the Rockets average 100.67 possessions per 48 minutes – not a huge dropoff at all.
Last season, McHale went on a classic rant about how difficult it is to play at a fast pace for 48 minutes, essentially saying players say they want to run but when it comes down to it, running at a high pace isn’t so easy.
“We’re trying to maintain our pace the best we can,” McHale said. “It fluctuates like everything else.”
McHale distills his offensive philosophy to the basics.
“The essence of basketball is simple but it’s hard to do at times. Draw two (defenders) and make a play,” McHale said. “It was like that in 1980 when I got in the league, and it’s like that in 2013. It’ll be like that in 2014, I’m sure.”
GASOL GOALS: Pau passes Schrempf on European scoring list
Last week, Los Angeles Lakers big man Pau Gasol became the NBA’s second all-time leading European scorer, passing Detlef Schrempf (15,761). Entering Friday’s game, Gasol has 15,792 career points and is behind Dirk Nowitzki (25,468).
“It just means I had a very successful career, and I’m one of the most successful Europeans that has ever played this game,” Gasol said.
That same week, Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant signed an extension that will keep him with the Lakers through 2015-16. Or as Bryant said, the deal makes him a “Laker for life.”
How does that phrase resonate with Gasol, whose contract expires after this season and it’s not clear if he will return to the Lakers next season?
“I’d love to continue to be a Laker and finish my career here if possible,” Gasol told USA TODAY Sports. “But who knows what will happen.”
Jeff Zillgitt covers the NBA for USA TODAY Sports alongside Sam Amick. They trade off weekly NBA A to Z and also do Spreecast live chats and more. Send them questions on Twitter at @JeffZillgitt and @Sam_Amick.
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