SALT LAKE CITY — Last spring, Utah Jazz bosses asked Gordon Hayward to return to his team in the fall ready to be more of a leader.
My how time has flown since a Jazz team leader was chucking an orange leather fastball at him in a game.
It’s early into training camp, but by all accounts, the fourth-year player is adjusting nicely to his new role.
Coach Tyrone Corbin appreciates the evolution.
Rookie Trey Burke and veteran Richard Jefferson admire him.
And, despite admitting it’s kind of a weird spot to be in after his previous follow-the-leader role, Hayward embraces the challenge and position.
“I’m expected to lead a little more,” Hayward said. “Vocally is where it’s a more of a challenge for me. Still, I like to lead by example and am making sure that I’m doing everything the right way because people are watching.”
Those who get to see him on a daily basis are impressed with what they’re seeing — and hearing.
“He has always been a guy (who leads) by example because he’s such a worker,” Corbin said. “(Now) he’s more open with his teammates. He’s starting to talk to them more. He’s starting to lead them more with his voice to let them know what he’s thinking, what he sees on the floor, and it’s all to help him and to help the team get better.”
Corbin credited Hayward for undergoing a maturation process as he's eagerly accepted more responsibilities.
"His maturity in his body, his mental state now. I think he’s comfortable where he is, understanding what he’s getting ready to face," Corbin said. "The experiences that he had the last few years is really starting to show in his performance."
Hayward said he’s being more cognizant about opening up. It doesn't always come natural. He's an interesting blend: competitive, composed, humble and anything but outspoken. In NBA seasons past, he's deferred to the leadership of guys who weren’t afraid to speak their minds: Deron Williams, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams.
There is not just one method for being a great leader, but in the NBA, players tend to follow guys who command respect and incite action by what they do and say. It worked for Hayward at Butler when he led the Bulldogs to the 2010 NCAA championship game, and the Jazz are hoping he can implement that scoring/defending/leading combination in the NBA.
“Gordon, absolutely, has been vocal,” Burke said. “He’s been doing a good job of leading the team.”
The rookie said he’s also trying to shoulder some leadership responsibilities. Knowing that he’ll have the ball in his hands a lot and will be directing traffic on court, that makes sense and is what the Jazz want and need. Interestingly, Burke also credited third-year shooting guard Alec Burks for being “vocal” so far at camp.
When it comes to Hayward, though, Burke has been impressed. The guy who’s been jokingly called the Baby Faced Assassin is growing and developing into a mature NBA player. That’s something the Jazz are in desperate need of in this rebuilding process.
“You can tell he has some experience under his belt, and that’s always good knowing that you have a guy like Gordon out there on the court,” Burke said. “If you don’t know what’s going on, he can tell you what’s going on. It’s definitely fun playing with him.”
Though Richard Jefferson has been around the league for a dozen years and knows the Jazz system from afar, he admitted he’s been leaning on the younger players in Hayward’s generation — including Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter — to fully get up to speed. He believes it’s a good exercise for them to help teach their teammates.
“That’s how they kind of grow and mature and become leaders and more vocal,” Jefferson said. “The ability to lead (is) the ability to make people want to follow you.”
While Hayward continues to work on leading by expression, he's been toiling away at leading by example since last season.
One of the big signs of leadership shown by Hayward since he received the advice from Corbin, general manager Dennis Lindsey and Co. was to take time out of his Team USA minicamp training to visit with the Jazz’s summer league squad in Orlando.
Since then, he’s also worked hard to improve his body and his basketball body of work. He hired a new trainer in Indianapolis and worked out hard at St. Vincent’s Sports Performance to maximize his downtime.
His overall physical fitness numbers at P3 in Santa Barbara, Calif., showed a bigger improvement this offseason than anybody else from the Jazz.
“I got a lot faster, a little stronger. I was able to do over a month-and-a-half straight of workouts every day,” Hayward said. “That was just really good for me.
"Cleaned a lot of stuff up as far as my core goes and balance. I definitely got a lot better.”
Hayward, the only player on the Jazz team who averaged double figures in the NBA last season, also knows he has to be more aggressive offensively this season. But there’s a delicate balance. In the past, he’s gotten frustrated at himself for flying under the basket in hopes of being bailed out by referees. Now, he’s continuing to work on a mid-range game that will allow him to add Jeff Hornacek-like floaters and short-range fade shots to his ever-increasing arsenal.
The Jazz are hoping the 6-foot-8 guard/forward will be able to better capitalize on the height advantage he’ll have over most wings.
“He’s a stringy, strong guy,” Corbin said. “But he’s so long (he should) be able to take advantage of his height down low. His quickness and fallaway jump shot are really good. We look for him to get more touches at the basket.”
And, more importantly, to be influential in a positive way even when he’s nowhere near the hoop.
As for his team, Hayward likes what he’s seeing so far. He said players were sore — a good sore — from working so hard in back-to-back two-a-days on Tuesday and Wednesday to open camp. The Jazz only had one practice Thursday morning before attending the UCLA-Utah football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium as a team that night.
“I think it’s good that guys are working. I think we all realize that we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “This is who we are as a team and I think we’ve embraced that.”