I think Gordon's the type of player, he's so skilled and so unselfish, he just wants to make everyone better. We need Gordon to be that player who takes that next step. —Suns interim coach Earl Watson
TORONTO — When the All-Star Game tips off Sunday, Gordon Hayward won’t be wearing a uniform for the Western Conference. While a collection of the NBA’s best players goof off in a high-scoring, low-defense highlight-fest, the Utah Jazz standout likely won’t even be tuned in.
Another thing he won’t be doing?
Spending his All-Star break in a place where the temperature is dipping below zero as it has in the frigid Great White North this weekend.
Hayward is in an undisclosed warm climate where he can soak in the sun, relax from the rigorous NBA grind and enjoy time off with his family.
If Hayward continues to play like he has been, the Jazz captain might not have too much spare time during future All-Star breaks.
While he’s just on the outside looking in — similar to his position with USA Basketball in recent years — Hayward appears primed to bust through soon.
“I think Gordon is on the inside, frankly. He may not make the Olympic team. He might too,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “But you look at the best players in the NBA, they’re right there. That’s LeBron James. That’s Kevin Durant. If you look at the West with the All-Star game, the players that are not on that list, there’s some franchise players.”
Damian Lillard. Tim Duncan. Dirk Nowitzki.
“I think it’s all part of Gordon’s progression as a player,” Snyder continued. “The interesting thing to me about him is he’s a better player now than he was (last year). And he’s a better player last year than he was the year before. That’s pretty exciting.
"Whether that translates into him being an Olympian (or an All-Star), he’s a part of a group of a select amount of players.”
Hayward considers himself an “elite” player — and, no, he wasn’t referring to his video game skills.
The sixth-year player’s all-around performance this season has backed up his confident claim. Snyder — who often compliments the small forward’s contributions, big and small — will be the first to vouch for that.
He’s not the only one, though.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers has jokingly admitted to having a man crush on Hayward.
Lakers star Kobe Bryant once said Hayward reminded him of “a more talented Jeff Hornacek.”
Brad Stevens, the Celtics current coach and his mentor at Butler, said he gets “sick to his stomach” game-planning against Hayward because of how he plays.
Suns interim coach Earl Watson is another NBA personality who is high on Hayward, and it’s been that way since the former Jazz guard first saw the guy he now calls “my little brother” after he was drafted ninth overall in 2010.
When they were teammates, Watson compared Hayward’s improvement trajectory to that of superstar Kevin Durant.
"His potential's unlimited," Watson said during the 2011-12 season. "I think Gordon's the type of player, he's so skilled and so unselfish, he just wants to make everyone better. We need Gordon to be that player who takes that next step."
To show you the steps Hayward has taken, he went on to average 11.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists that season as the Jazz made the playoffs.
This year, the much-matured Hayward is averaging 19.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists and has taken on a strong leadership role for the Jazz, on and off the court.
Those are All-Star-level numbers regardless of being voted in by fans or coaches.
The fact that didn’t happen only motivates Hayward — or will again at least after his brief and sunny R&R concludes this week.
“You can use it as fuel, for sure. I want to eventually make the team and not just be the guy who’s always on the outside looking in,” Hayward said. “I think that will come when we start to be more successful as a team. Unfortunately, this year we had a bunch of injuries. We didn’t do as well at the beginning of the year, so I didn’t make it in.”
Just like his coach, Hayward believes his time will come.
“I think I’m right there. I think there are a bunch of guys that will get a lot of recognition on our team if we’re more successful with the wins and losses,” he said. “I think eventually that stuff will come. Right now, all I can worry about is how I play on the court and just trying to get better.”
Watson has loved the process of seeing Hayward blossom into what he’s become — a strong wing who can score from the outside, has increased his aggression at the rim, has turned into a consistent scorer and is often up to the task of taking on the toughest defensive assignment.
What Watson really loves about Hayward is that he doesn’t back down, a development that some might not have seen coming when he had a fastball thrown at him by a pouting Deron Williams as a rookie and who took a Delonte West finger to the ear a couple of years later.
Watson recalled a couple of incidents during Hayward’s rookie season that clued him into the notion that he was in the midst of a special player.
“I remember the first day of practice (in 2010),” Watson said. “We were scrimmaging. Raja Bell was the starting two guard, so Gordon tried to get open on the wing. Raja Bell clotheslined him, dropped him.”
Watson curiously watched to see what his young teammate — the fresh-faced Butler kid who would’ve been a junior in college had he not entered the draft early — would do after the rough welcome-to-the-NBA gesture by Bell.
“Gordon jumps right back up, immediately,” Watson said. “The moment that I knew he was going to be great is (when) he jumped up so quick as if to say, ‘I won’t be intimidated. I’m going to be here for a long time and I’m here to fight my way into a position.’”
Watson was also impressed to see how Hayward won over then-coach Jerry Sloan, gaining rare trust as a rookie.
“Coach Sloan did not play rookies,” Watson recalled. “He barely spoke to rookies.”
Fast forward to the end of Hayward’s rookie season for another defining moment, which happened when the Jazz visited L.A. to play the Lakers.
In Watson’s words:
“Gordon has struggled all year against physicality. Now we’re going to play Kobe Bryant. I’ll never forget it. Gordon defensively — which a lot of people don’t know he was a great high school tennis player — was so laterally quick that Kobe was struggling. Gordon was blocking shots, getting deflections, getting steals.
“There was one play I will never forget,” he continued. “We’re coming down and Gordon goes right, left crossover, takes a long stride, loses the ball in the air. Kobe comes to try to jump with him and he dunks it with the left. That was the moment I knew Gordon Hayward has arrived.”
Watson said he doesn’t think guys like West or Bell even were “punking” Hayward.
“They were testing him. The thing is, Gordon’s not going to give in. He’s tough. Nothing was ever easy in his life,” Watson added. “He realizes the harder he worked the easier the game will be. He still has that mentality.”
For what it’s worth, Watson, who replaced the fired Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix, hopes the Suns fill their roster with players like Hayward, guys who are good people and players.
Snyder doesn’t care how others evaluate his players like Hayward. Sure, he wants them to have success and participate in fun events like All-Star Weekend. The coach was excited for Rising Stars Rodney Hood, Raul Neto and Trey Lyles, after all. Ultimately, Snyder is more concerned with how they fit in with him, his coaching staff, his players and his system.
“I want to be careful not to define him based on some of those measures,” he said, “as opposed to really evaluate and kind of look at him for what he’s doing and how much improvement he’s shown and his leadership and all of those different things.”
In other words, Snyder values Hayward whether anyone else does or not.
“I think he’s going to make the All-Star Game at some point in his career,” Snyder said. “He’s 25. It’s a hard thing to do.”
The biggest thing Hayward and Snyder have going for them is a relationship of trust.
Hayward said that began shortly after the former Duke player and assistant was hired to replace Ty Corbin in June of 2014.
“I think it (our relationship) clicked pretty well right from the beginning. I think that he started off the right way,” Hayward said. “We had a dinner in Chicago and I was recently married and we talked more about life than about basketball, so we built a relationship right there before we even got into the whole basketball side of it.”
That solid relationship, Hayward added, continued to grow when he went to work out at P3 in Santa Barbara that summer.
“We built the trust in California too when we went out there,” he said. “I think just the type of person that he is – competitive, passionate, really resonates with me. It was easy.”
Snyder said he figured how to challenge Hayward — yes, he even gets on him on occasion in practice — to help him improve.
“But,” Snyder added, “he challenges himself a lot. He’s as competitive a guy as you’ll find. He doesn’t sleep a whole lot after we lose.”
The way Hayward picked up his game and his leadership while the Jazz went through a slew of injuries — even simultaneously being without Dante Exum, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks — earlier this season really made Snyder trust his go-to guy even more.
“We were right there together when we had some really tough stretches,” Snyder said. “We were right there together when you’re looking out there and Alec’s not there and Fav’s not there and Rudy’s not there and Dante’s not there.”
But Hayward was there, never shying away from a challenge or even harsh advice from a coach.
“If you know someone’s with you and cares about you and there’s trust,” Snyder said, “those things will have a way of being positive.”
That strong desire to win and to improve bonds Snyder and Hayward. The love of winning — or the loathing of losing — especially drives Hayward.
“I think just my inner-competitiveness, just trying to be better so we can win more games,” he said when asked what motivates him. “I hate losing more than anything. I think losing is something that drives me.”
In that case, it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise that Hayward was overlooked for accolades. The Jazz take a 26-26 record and are tied with Portland for the seventh spot in the Western Conference heading into the important post-All-Star push.
The odds are good that a motivated Hayward combined with a healthier Jazz team will boost this franchise back into a playoff spot for the first time since 2012.
“It’s something where I wanted to be on it. I can use it as fuel for the rest of the season and for offseason workouts,” Hayward said of the All-Star team. “But it’s not going to make or break my season. To me, it’s more about how we do as a team. Right now, we’re making a push into the playoffs and this is a huge game for us. It’s not something I’m worried about.”
By the way, Hayward said that last Tuesday morning. Later that day, the Jazz’s leading scorer hit a game-winning step-back jumper in overtime as Utah won at Dallas for the first time in his career.
"He’s a finisher. I don't know where that came from. He’s a finisher," Jazz guard Rodney Hood said when asked about a common complaint about Hayward. "He did it early in the season against the Clippers. He did it last year against Cleveland. There’s been plenty of times he’s finished games for us and carried us throughout the games. We as a team lean on him."