On the night he hit that memorable last-second shot to beat the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers, Jazz veteran Gordon Hayward sat in front of his newly-relocated locker stall and smiled like he knew a secret.
What’s the secret? He’s not telling, but it certainly appears to be a good thing judging by the way he’s been playing this season.
Going into Wednesday night’s game at Atlanta, the 24-year-old is Utah’s leading scorer, averaging 19.4 points per game. Additionally, he leads the team in assists (5.1 per game) and ranks second in rebounds (6.3 per game, behind Derrick Favors’ 8.4).
He’s hitting a little over half his shots from the field (50.5) and has hit a team-leading 16 3-point shots (he’s hitting 36 percent from behind the arc).
Now, those numbers aren’t overly impressive and they don’t reflect a major boost over his career stats. But anyone who was watching that Nov. 5 victory over LeBron James and the highly-touted Cavaliers could see Hayward was playing with more confidence than at any time in his professional career.
There is a swagger there that has never existed, ever.
That’s not to say he wasn’t the star of his high school or college teams (he was) or that he didn’t play with great confidence back then (he did), but he has improved so much since then there is just no comparison.
OK, so we’ve established that ol’ Gordon is having a pretty good season and that he’s playing with oodles of confidence.
But what’s the secret?
Hayward isn’t telling but he’s definitely giving hints.
The following quote comes from the Jazz’s Oct. 29 season-opening loss to the Houston Rockets at EnergySolutions Arena. In it he addresses the early impact rookie head coach Quin Snyder has had on him.
“He’s just instilled confidence in me,” Hayward said. “We’ve been leaning on each other out there on the court. He’s pretty knowledgable at the end of the game. If I have a question or if I want to lead he lets me go to him and he lets me know what I should do and what I need to keep doing.”
I used that quote in a column I wrote that night. But it has stuck with me since then. I’ve thought about it a few times and wondered what deeper meaning – if any – there is to it.
I think there is, which is why I said Hayward was giving a hint.
Snyder is the reason for the boost in confidence and it stems not from who he is but from what he’s not.
He’s not Frank Layden or Jerry Sloan or Tyrone Corbin. He’s not from the same line of old school Jazz coaches, each of whom had a similar style. There were differences, naturally, but there is a strong thread running through them: Corbin learned from Sloan, who learned from Layden.
Dating back more than three decades, the Jazz were coached by one of those three men. But after last season, when team executives opted not to offer Corbin another contract, that chain was broken. It needed to be broken, not because the other guys were bad coaches (they obviously weren’t) but because the franchise needed to break from its past in order to step into the future.
Hayward is the future.
The Jazz made him a max-money player over the summer and in an act of symbolism moved his locker from a corner of the room to the middle, where veterans – leaders – can keep watch and be watched.
And under Snyder’s watch, Hayward is experiencing a different style of coaching and communication. He has been given, and accepted, more responsibility than ever before.
End of secret.
Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @StandardExJimbo