SALT LAKE CITY — During the critical juncture of Tuesday night's game between the Utah Jazz and the Cleveland Cavaliers, two players dominated when their teams made massive runs.
One player was a versatile and athletic star whose leadership, talent, passing, scoring ability and all-around play are at an elite level.
The other was LeBron James.
OK, let's be real. King James also checks off all of those boxes — and more — but Gordon Hayward has elevated his game this season to the point where nobody is all that surprised that he does, too.
Hayward might not be on the same star level as James, but he's playing like he deserves to be in the same conversation when it comes to the All-Star Game.
"I think he’s one of the best in the league, hands down, no questions asked," Jazz point guard George Hill said of Hayward.
The Jazz small forward's 28-point, nine-rebound outing in Utah's 100-92 victory over the Cavs was just the latest stellar performance for a guy whose trajectory continues to elevate.
Neither Hayward nor Jazz center Rudy Gobert has received enough votes from fans around the world to be listed among the top 10 in their player groups (frontcourt and wings) in ongoing All-Star voting.
The guys Hayward works with on a daily basis, however, believe he's deserving of a spot in the league's midseason star-studded showcase on Feb. 19 in New Orleans.
The seventh-year player's averages (22.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists) and the Jazz's solid first half of the NBA season (24-16, fifth in West) would seem to back up that assertion.
"People are starting to take more notice because he’s getting more wins and our team is doing a lot better," Hill said. "He’s been, in my eyes, an All-Star for the last couple of years with his numbers and what he’s done. Hopefully he gets blessed enough to take that opportunity this year to make it."
Rodney Hood believes it would be an NBA injustice if Hayward doesn't make it after playing so well this season.
The league will announce the 10 All-Star starters on Jan. 19 and the 14 reserves on Jan. 26.
"It would be crazy if he doesn’t make it," Hood said. "Obviously we know it’s tough, but he’s playing at an All-Star level. I don’t know what more he can do. Our team’s playing at a great level and a lot of it is because of him. If he doesn’t (make it), I really don’t understand it, but we’re all pulling for him to make it."
While the fans aren't of much help — and it's unlikely he'd get a starting nod from a media panel and NBA players whose votes count for the other 50 percent in that decision — Hayward will get strong consideration from coaches. He's the type of player coaches love to coach but hate to coach against because he can do so many different things so well.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder admitted his view, shared by his players, is "obvious" about Hayward, who's remarkably improved his scoring average in each of his seven seasons.
"I feel that way. There’s a fine line between lobbying for your player, nothing wrong with that," Snyder said. "You try to be objective. I see what he does for our team all the time.
"There are a lot of great players out there. It's hard to make those decisions. But in my mind, he’s taken steps as a player and is deserving of that opportunity."
James, who had 29 points and six rebounds in his sixth-straight loss at Utah, said he didn't want to get involved in whether or not Hayward should make the All-Star team.
"He is a very good player and they (Jazz) would not be in the position they are in right now without him," James said. "So I do not know if he is an All-Star or not an All-Star. I don't get involved in that."
There will be stiff competition for the 12 spots on this elite Western Conference All-Star squad, considering Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Marc Gasol are among the frontrunners for the frontcourt spots.
It likely helps Hayward's cause that Blake Griffin has been out for almost a month because of a knee injury. It could throw a wrench in his NOLA plans, however, if Zaza Pachulia sneaks in thanks to the fan voting. The Georgian big is currently second behind Durant (987,479) with 823,376 votes. That's nearly 200,000 votes ahead of Leonard (630,766). It's highly unlikely that players and media will vote in Pachulia as a starter, so it remains to be seen if that big gap will be enough when the NBA tabulates its revised formula.
Either way, Snyder appreciates the improved consistency he's seeing from Hayward.
"I think that’s the thing that when you talk about where he is I think the consistent level, his level being so high so consistently separates him," Snyder said. "He's up at that level more and for longer periods during the game."
The Jazz coach said Hayward continues to learn as a player, too. He's recognizing different coverages and figuring out how to deal with opponents blitzing him and throwing various players at him.
"That’s the next level he found (Tuesday) is understanding how to attack a defense, not just attack one guy," Snyder said. "The combination of scoring, passing, rebounding; he’s doing it a lot of ways. He’s doing it defensively, too."
Snyder said he'll cut Hayward some slack if he's not always as sharp on defense as he'd like.3 comments on this story
Hayward, who's said he's not concerning himself with the All-Star hoopla, credited his teammates and work with coaches, including assistant Johnnie Bryant, for his ability to play at a higher level for longer stretches.
"I think teammates are giving me some good opportunities, some easy things early, some layups, some open shots," Hayward said. "I think studying the film, doing some extra work before the game has helped me out and after the games, stuff that I didn't use to do and I think the little things like that have definitely transferred over."