SALT LAKE CITY — It took Gordon Hayward awhile to get going on Tuesday, but hasn’t it always? In terms of his NBA career, that is.
The Jazz are still semi-patiently waiting for him to grow into himself. That’s how it goes with kids. You see their potential, and think they’re growing up too fast, then you tell them to grow up.
Hayward is there, in a way, but not completely.
He didn’t score his first field goal until 4:18 remained in the first quarter in a 112-97 loss to Minnesota. Thereafter it looked like he had never been gone. He was easily the Jazz’s brightest spot with 27 points.
But his nice return after a five-game layoff wasn’t nearly enough.
Beating the Timberwolves this year has been as futile as, well, howling at the moon.
The progress of the Jazz is a discussion for another day. The return of Hayward wasn’t. He was back, which made it a different team. Or did it?
Judging by their last two games, not necessarily. They got waxed last Saturday by 26 in Minneapolis, then fell behind by the same on Tuesday. For coach Tyrone Corbin it must have felt like a trip to the ophthalmologist. Which is better, this or this? This or this?
For a moment, the Jazz seemed they’d make a run when they cut the lead to 11 in the third quarter, but 80 seconds later they were down by 20.
When a reporter mentioned the wheels coming off in the second half, Corbin said, “Hopefully not completely off.”
If it seems forever since Hayward’s hip injury took him down for two weeks, that’s because he does the little things. Recently he has done the big things, too. The heck of it was that he got hurt on a night when he looked like everything Jazz coaches have been anticipating, with a 37-point, 11-rebound, seven-assist, two-steal game against Oklahoma City.
Yet for part of the season he couldn’t find the sky with a telescope. It’s still hard to fathom him going 1-for-17 against New Orleans in November, 5-for-15 against Chicago (twice), 3-for-14 against Indiana and 3-for-11 vs. Charlotte.
But in his final three games before the injury he shot 60 percent and averaged 27 points, six rebounds and five assists. On Tuesday he played 36 minutes, never looking out of shape.
“It was a little slow start,” Hayward said, “but I was able to make some shots and it felt good out there.”
“I thought he responded well,” Corbin said.
There are many reasons why Hayward has been up and down this season. Part of it is getting comfortable with combinations. Corbin has used eight different starting lineups. The dynamics changed when Trey Burke came off his injury and started getting shots.
Another factor is that Hayward is a marked man. Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said he had a “man crush” on him and Kobe Bryant lavishly praises him. Although Hayward can do almost everything, that’s also sometimes his downfall.
Yet Jazz coaches have done little to lower expectations. Though they’ve tried to avoid putting direct pressure on him, there’s no doubting their signals. They think he’s the next All-Star in Utah.
What that means is anyone’s guess. Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko also were All-Stars, once apiece. They were good players but not franchise-makers. Neither is Hayward.
So just how valuable is he? Right now he’s the best player on one of the league’s worst teams.
Though he’s a restricted free agent next summer, it’s doubtful the Jazz will fail to match other offers. If the Jazz seem careful, there’s a reason. Kirilenko signed a maximum contract extension in 2004, just before his stats began to slip. That wasn’t all A.K.’s fault. The Jazz had him play numerous roles, from year to year, and once Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer were aboard, he was a side dish.
Now the Jazz have their newest non-Hall of Fame star. Is Hayward worth the reported four-year, $50 million deal? That would put him in the neighborhood of Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka, Denver’s Ty Lawson, Golden State’s Andre Iguodala, Minnesota’s Nikola Pekovic and San Antonio’s Tony Parker.
That’s a good neighborhood to be lurking.
Yet none is good enough to build a franchise on.
Is he worth the big-dollars investment?
Only if a superstar shows up to make him that much better.
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