Most Improved Player? Don’t Forget About Gordon Hayward

When NBA players in Utah put up big numbers, do they make a sound?

Utah is in rebuilding mode but has a multi-talented wingman in Gordon Hayward, improving at a rate most casual NBA fans are unaware of. Since arriving on the scene from Butler three seasons ago, he has quietly raised his game in each campaign, becoming more integral to Utah’s plans each season.

Now in his fourth year, Hayward is assuming the mantle as the focal point of Utah’s offense and might be a long-term piece in their rebuilding quest. He reportedly could return tonight after missing five games with a strained hip flexor, which came on the heels of the best game of his career: 37 points on 16 shots, 11 rebounds and seven assists in a win over OKC.

The Jazz let both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap walk in free agency, clearing the way for Hayward’s career year.

At 17.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.3 steals a game for the season, he is one of the more productive wings in the league. With the exception of steals, those averages are all plus 2.5 or more in their respective categories from last season. An increase in minutes is often followed by a simple increase in points, but Hayward is continuing to play good all-around basketball while on the floor. The Jazz may struggle too often for Hayward to get much traction for the Most Improved Player award — that’s what happens when your team is 14-28 and in last place in the Western Conference — but he should at least be on the radar.

Without a doubt, Utah is one of the least efficient teams in the league and rank near the bottom in almost every significant category. In turn, it might be easy to deduce that Hayward is just the product of inflated numbers on a bad team. But think about how truly lowly they would be without him?

The Jazz hoped Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter would develop into a Jefferson/Millsap paring 2.0, but that hasn’t happened yet. Favors looks like he could tap out as a strong defender and rebounder who is most content as a third option, and Kanter has come off the bench for most of the year because of struggles on the defensive end. Their slow development is putting increased pressure on Hayward, especially in the first month of the season when rookie guard Trey Burke was out due to injury. In the season’s first 12 games, the team asked Hayward to do everything, with limited assets and playmakers. During that span, he scored 19.1 points per game and grabbed 5.9 rebounds.

The increased workload is affecting his shooting percentages, especially from the three-point line. However, he seems to understand his role isn’t to be a spot-up shooter waiting for a kick out from the post, as it was in previous seasons. He is actually taking fewer three-point attempts compared to last season while embracing a facilitator’s role. Even with all of that, Hayward is taking more two-point attempts than ever and connecting on a respectable 45 percent from that range.

Utah took a bit of risk by not inking him to an extension before the October 31 deadline and I guess they wanted to make sure he was worth the coin. Now they’ll need to pony up more once he becomes a restricted free agent in the summer. He will have no shortage of suitors after some of the bigger names are off the board. Hayward and Luol Deng should command about the same salary depending on who signs first and where. Someone is going to offer the 23-year-old big money, and maybe even drive the price up on Utah, who will have the right to match any offer. Jazz officials might be kicking themselves in July if they must dig deep into their pockets to retain him.

Many rave about Hayward’s basketball IQ and with more responsibility, he just keeps getting better. He understands who he is and buys into the team concept without any push-back. That, along with his talent, will keep his agent’s phone ringing with offers this summer. Utah already let two very good players leave while trying to save money and rebuild. It’s understood that maybe Hayward isn’t “the man” you build around, but he makes for a very impressive number two.

Will Utah’s “wait and see” approach to Hayward cost them a third quality player in two years? We too will have to wait and see.

Should Hayward win MIP?

Follow Warren on Twitter at @ShawSportsNBA.

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