Monday November 17th, 2014

NEW YORK – Gordon Hayward caused a bit of a stir with a blog post last month. The post was titled “The Best in the Game” and Hayward tweeted it to his 92,000-plus  followers with the following teaser: “If I played @KingJames 1-on-1, I'd crush him."

For those who didn't read the entire post, Hayward’s brashness was not well received. Hayward later reflected on the critical tweets beamed his way and mentioned that a Cavaliers front office member sent him a text message saying, “Did you really just call out LeBron one-on-one?” Hayward, it turns out, was not calling out James. The post, which briefly crashed his personal website, details Hayward’s video-gaming prowess. When he said he was the best in the game, Hayward was really talking about the “League of Legends" -- not the hardwood where LeBron is a legend.

Hayward got a chance to back up his tongue-in-cheek trash talk on Nov. 5 when Cleveland came to town on the second night of a back-to-back. Hayward didn't defeat LeBron one-on-one, but the Jazz did best the Cavs 102-100 thanks to the swingman's big game. Hayward scored 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting, dished out seven assists, executed an impressive chasedown block of LeBron and hit a game-winning, step-back jumper over Tristan Thompson as time expired.

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The victory inspired Hayward to write another post on his blog, detailing what it was like to go against James,  how the game-winner boosted his confidence, how it was one of the most special nights of his career and how it could serve as a “watershed moment” for the Jazz. Hayward also noted how the shot could help his teammates.

If Trey Burke or Alec Burks were ever to face a similar situation, Hayward wrote, his make could help them believe they’re capable of pulling off the same thing. Sure enough, Trey Burke drilled a buzzer-beating fadeaway to beat the Knicks in Madison Square Garden just nine days later. Burke’s shot came after he spoke, prior to the game, about trying to remaining confident in himself during a shooting slump.

“When your shot’s not falling, you have to find other ways to affect the game,” said Burke, who is shooting just 32 percent from the field this season. “And for myself, that’s something that I go through sometimes. You play a little inconsistent, you miss some shots, and you just can’t lose confidence. So, I know that I’ll break out of it and just continue to help my team win.”

The takeaway from Hayward’s dagger? A signature moment for a rising superstar. Neither his shot not Burke's may mean much down the road – unless Utah were to unexpectedly find itself jostling for playoff positioning in a stacked Western Conference. Though they do provide more evidence for those touting Utah as one of the league’s more intriguing, if not particularly threatening, teams. 

The Jazz have passed the point in their rebuilding process where incompetence outweighs intrigue. This is a maturing team whose pieces are finally beginning to resemble something more than just raw talent with upside. It’s why some observers predicted Utah to be this year’s 2013-14 Suns. The Jazz, in simple terms, are getting closer, and watching them bridge the gap from fun outfit to playoff combatant will be fascinating.

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“Last year, it was a lot of guy’s first time being a starter,” Jazz center Derrick Favors said. "We had a lot of stuff to learn, and this year, we’re used to everything now so it kind of makes it a little bit easier.”

Hayward’s seeming star turn is one of the biggest reasons why there’s optimism surrounding Utah’s growth. Some suggested the Jazz may have miscalculated by letting Hayward hit restricted free agency this summer. Utah matched a four-year, $63 million max offer sheet from the Hornets for a player who struggled to adapt to a central role following the after the departures of post pillars Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. Yet through 11 games this season, Hayward has given indications that the sticker price backlash was misguided.

Hayward is averaging 19.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists and has made big leaps in Player Efficiency Rating (16.2 to 23.4) and shooting percentage (41.3 to 48.3). When Hayward is on the floor, Utah is scoring 4.2 more points per 100 possessions and yielding fewer on the other end, according to NBA.com. We may look back on that Cavs game as a signature moment in Hayward’s rise, but he also fared well last Friday against Carmelo Anthony in New York, finishing with a season-high 33 points in the win.

“He makes it easy for everybody else”, Favors said of Hayward. “He makes it easy for myself. He improved a lot since last year.”

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Utah’s investment in Favors – a four-year extension worth at least $49 million – was viewed as a wager on potential. The 6-foot-10 big man is beginning to show flashes of building-block material, though it’s still too early to know whether his output can be maintained over a full season. Through Monday, Favors’ scoring and shooting percentages had increased, but his rebounds had dipped and the Jazz remain one of the worst defensive teams in the league even during his floor time.

Enes Kanter, who struggled last season and failed to reach an agreement before this year's deadline, has provided more efficient offensive production while trying to expand his range out to the three-point line (he’s attempted 17 treys after launching three over the previous three seasons). And Rudy Gobert, after a stong showing at this summer’s FIBA World Cup in Spain, profiles as an elite rim protector.

Meanwhile, any angst over Burke’s slow start is tempered by the rapid development of first-round pick Dante Exum. The Aussie was considered one of the bigger projects near the top of the draft but has already played himself into the early Rookie of the Year conversation. Another long-term backcourt piece, Alec Burks, may not develop into a Demar Derozan-type offensive creator, but the $42 million deal Utah handed to him was a reasonable gamble given the final three years will likely occupy a proportionally smaller slice of cap room.

For all the promise Utah’s core offers, though, more growing pains are coming for a team whose youth and inexperience will likely keep it out of the playoff picture this season. Utah still ranks near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency, and several propositions – if Burke snaps out of his funk, if Favors makes strides, if Exum’s growth pattern continues to track earlier than expected – will need to come to fruition for Utah to be taken seriously in the West.

Still, it’s clear Utah is progressing, if incrementally, towards contention. Whereas it was difficult to decipher the core of Utah’s next playoff-caliber outfit as recently as a couple of years ago, there’s now a clear blueprint in place. You can envision this group playing meaningful spring basketball, even if it likely won’t happen this year.

“We have a long way to go to get to where we want to go, but I definitely think that the chemistry is a little better,” Burke said. “We kind of know who we are as a team – we just have to continue to grow.”

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