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Aaron Guile: Gordon Hayward — the emerging point forward

By Aaron Guile

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 17 2013 9:47 a.m. MDT

Trey Burke, catching a long pass from Gordon Hayward, slides to the right under pressure and whips a pick-and-roll bounce pass to Enes Kanter, who makes the shot from the foul line. During the pass, Burke breaks his finger and leaves the game.

Crunch.

I feel sympathetic pain every time I watch the video on YouTube. Basketball players' fingers are as crooked as a cat’s tail from vindictive, hateful basketballs.

Crunch.

Fortunately, Burke will be back. His finger will heal. He’s young and he’s smart. He’ll practice without the ball, stay in shape and watch tape until his eyes burn. He just won’t be the starting point guard for the Jazz until the doctor, the voodoo enchantress living in the EnergySolutions Arena basement and the insurance adjusters sign off on him.

I have to admit, Burke’s bounce pass scintillates, but Kanter’s two points were just not worth a broken finger.

That leaves John Lucas III, Scott Machado, Ian Clark and Lester Hudson to run the Jazz system as point guards. Crunch. They’ll be adequate with Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin yo-yoing their strengths and weaknesses in and out of the Jazz rotation. Alec Burks will also bounce in the occasional point-guard dribble.

But what about Gordon Hayward?

I’ve jammed my fingers playing church ball and in the Army. I’m a terrible basketball player with no athletic skill, but I do know the meaning of the word “crunch.” Crunch is the onomatopoeia equivalent for “Dang! I just broke my finger on a basketball!” Crunch also means crisis, difficulty, trouble, test, critical point, calamity, catastrophe, misery, misfortune, hour of decision and moment of truth.

This moment of truth here is not for Burke. Burke remains a rookie point guard with amazing potential. This moment of truth rests on Gordon Hayward. Quoted in panegyric “We are Utah," Hayward said, “fans are passionate in general, but Jazz fans absolutely love their team. I know that if I play hard and leave everything on the floor then fans will appreciate it. My effort has changed their opinion and it feels good.” Hayward’s right, if he plays with passion, heart and ferocity, Utah fans will continue to support him. Still, a few wins would be nice.

Hayward could lead the imminent merry-go-round backcourt rotation. I think a Burks/Hayward backcourt would be brilliant. On Oct. 6, Bleacher Report’s Andy Bailey wrote, “on media day, (coach) Corbin indicated that he wants to use Hayward as a playmaker. … So, it looks like it's definitely going to happen. The questions are: How effective can Hayward be in the role? And what's the benefit of even having a point forward?” The Jazz plan on Hayward handling the ball. They kind of have to. Hayward is the Nellie-ball lynchpin for the Utah Jazz.

Nellie-ball is a problem. Putting players in nontraditional positions is an admission there is a gap in team balance. Don Nelson, interviewed by ESPN.com’s Henry Abbott on Sept. 6, 2012, said of Nellie-ball, “you only play Nellie ball when you don't have a very good team, or when you have a bunch of good small players and not many good big players. When you have bad teams, you've got to be creative to win games you're not supposed to win.” Nelson perfected the point forward position, turning forwards into primary playmakers. He did this to compensate for weaknesses at certain positions.

The first reason to use a point forward is to run an innovative, Nellie-ball type of team. The Jazz don’t need small ball if Kanter and Derrick Favors play to their ability — which they will. The Jazz need innovation in their half-court sets. Even with three or four-deep at the point guard position sans Burke’s broken finger, the Jazz still lack point guard playmakers. With this weakness, the Jazz must compensate, possibly exploiting Nelson's effective point forward characteristics.

The second reason to use a point forward is if a team already has one. Ever heard of Larry Bird? The Celtics' offense ran through Bird most of the time whether he played small or power forward. Contemporary point forwards are LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Lamar Odom and Hedo Turkoglu.

Hayward should play point forward because he has to and because he is one. CBSSports.com’s Zach Buckley writes, “There were five players in the NBA last season that averaged at least 14.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists and shot at least 40.0 percent from 3-point range. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and O.J. Mayo all did it, as did Hayward ….” Like point forwards James and Durant, Hayward has the stat-spreading ability to create offense. The Jazz have an emerging point forward providing the offensive depth teams like the Heat and the Thunder have.

Ultimately, the Nellie-ball reason to have a point forward is desperation. Nellie-ball systems are limited, offensive minded beasts, so playing as a point forward out of forced necessity is at best a wonky idea. Nellie-ball's debilitating, weak defense limits a team's endurance.

For the Jazz to win throughout their schedule, they have to play solid defense. The Jazz defensive leader is obviously Favors, but Hayward is no slouch, either. Oddly, Jarom Moore at KSL.com reports video game NBA 2k14 rated Hayward as the worst defender on the team. There is a problems with this when Zach Buckley — this time in Bleacher Report — counters, saying Hayward “held both opposing shooting guards (13.6) and small forwards (12.4) well below the league average 15.0 player efficiency rating.”

In the same Oct. 6 Bleacher Report article I referenced above, Andy Bailey writes, “LeBron James is widely known as the king of the chase-down block, but Hayward isn't far behind. For his career, the Jazz wing has averaged 0.7 blocks per 36 minutes, a shade under LeBron's 0.8.” On Oct. 14, Bailey recommended this video for Hayward doubters.

Obviously, NBA 2k14 is wrong, Hayward can play defense.

The third reason to play point forward is star power. The Jazz have no All-Stars. None. This is a problem. SLCdunks.com’s AllThatAmar writes:

“If you watch the NBA Playoffs you know that good teams can make it there, but it's the stars who help determine who wins and loses games. It's important for all teams to have a star, or failing that, to market a player as one. Purists don't believe a star is necessary — but look at the NBA schedule, which is almost entirely determined around market value and social media metrics. The brighter teams (with more stars) play fewer games that are the third game in four nights, or even back to back games.”

If conducting the Jazz offense and being a defensive power doesn't make Hayward an eventual All-Star, nothing will.

While Burke did not break his finger on purpose, the crunch moment happened anyway. As point forward, Hayward conducts the Jazz machine as an offensive enabler and as a power on defense. Hayward, as a point forward, is a great option for a long schedule from the perspective of necessity, natural disposition and resultant star power.

Aaron Guile lives in Provo, Utah. He can be contacted at aaron.guile@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @AaronGuile.

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