Finding a Niche for Gordon Hayward

Finding a Niche for Gordon Hayward
May 05, 2010, 02:12 am
One of the most highly debated prospects in this draft, Butler’s miraculous tournament put the unassuming Gordon Hayward in the national spotlight. Projected all over the board, the mid-major star is certainly talented, but he elicits as wide a range of opinions as any prospect in this draft.

Gordon Hayward, 6-8, Sophomore, Small Forward, Butler
15.5 Points, 8.2 Rebounds, 1.2 Assists, 2.3 Turnovers, 1.1 Steals, 29.4% 3FG, 46.4% FG, 82.9% FT

The last time we checked in on Gordon Hayward (in mid-January), he was only a few months away from one of the most improbable NCAA tournament runs in recent history. Coming up inches short of a historic upset, Hayward was the catalyst for the Bulldogs’ run in March and improved his draft stock with his heady play. While his game has some scouts swearing by his ability to emerge as a Mike Miller-type complementary scorer, Hayward still has his detractors. His status as a small conference star with questionable athleticism elicits a wide spectrum of opinions when projecting him to the next level.

A large part of the variation in scouts’ sentiments about Hayward is his physical profile. While he has excellent size for a NBA small forward at, he spent a great deal of time at the power forward spot last season and lacks the prototypical athleticism that would allow him to seamlessly transition his game to the next level. He’s not terribly explosive and will have to answer some questions about his lateral quickness and defensive ability. But he also has positive attributes. He displays good speed and shows tremendous body control. His ability to use those tools to effectively complement his outstanding basketball IQ and perimeter stroke remains a subject of debate.

The aspect of Hayward’s game that few questioned last season was his ability to hit shots from the perimeter, but one of the more noticeable changes in his statistics from last season to when we checked on him in January was the near 10% drop in his 3-point percentage.

In the final few months of the season, his shooting continued to deteriorate to the point that he finished his sophomore campaign shooting under 30% from beyond the arc. Though such a slump would seem problematic for a player who will need to shoot the ball well to be effective at the next level, the decline in his performance in catch-and-shoot situations had more to do with his role with the Bulldogs than any tangible changes in the way he shot the ball.

As the clear-cut first option for coach Brad Stevens last season, Hayward was defended more effectively than he was in his first season at Butler, and he took some shots that he may not have taken as a freshman. In 2009, nearly 75% of his catch-and-shoot jumpers were unguarded, according to Synergy Sports Technology. He saw less than half of such attempts go uncontested in 2010. His smooth mechanics and sound form speak to his ability to be a more effective player at the next level when he reverts back to being a complementary option. He’ll reap the benefits of playing next to quicker guards and having more space to operate out on the perimeter.

As he continues to add strength and puts the work in through pure repetition, he should have little trouble translating his stroke to the NBA 3-point line.

The decline in his perimeter shooting hurt his overall scoring efficiency last season, but Hayward compensated with marked improvements in other areas of his offensive game. He was substantially better inside the arc, finishing at a much improved rate (59.2%- tops amongst all small forwards in this draft) and knocking down his pull-up jumper at a more than respectable clip. While he isn’t the type of ball handler that gets to the rim at will, he has added a fluid crossover to his repertoire that allows him to create enough separation to step back for threes or get into the lane where he can allow his excellent body control and tremendous touch to take over. He isn’t likely to be breaking down defenders in the NBA, but the diversity of his perimeter scoring attack will add a dimension to what he brings to a team, especially if he regains his consistency in catch-and-shoot situations.

Hayward played a prominent role for the Bulldogs and did a bit of everything this season, but whichever NBA franchise lands him won’t be asking him to do many of the things he did for the Bulldogs last season. He won’t be relied upon to create late in the shot clock or carry his team. Rather, he’ll be asked to improve on some of the things he’s already good at and to help stretch the floor with the threat of his jump shot.

In Butler’s matchup with Duke, it was clear that Hayward had to do everything in his power to create easy scoring opportunities for himself because Lance Thomas and an array of other defenders were focused on keeping the ball out of his hands. Though Hayward had a hard time getting off clean looks, he displayed a high motor working off the ball, good timing on his cuts, and a willingness to draw contact and crash the offensive glass. Over the course of the year, he also knocked down nearly half of his jumpers when running off screens, an asset that could allow a creative head coach to open up clean looks for him from the perimeter or use him as a decoy to generate shots for other players. He doesn’t project as a high level option in the NBA, but Hayward has the tools to be an efficient role player.

Ultimately, Hayward’s level of success in the NBA will have as much to do with his ability to capably defend NBA his position as it does with the translation of his jump shot. Though he uses his length effectively, rebounds the ball well for a small forward, shows good intensity and understands positioning, Hayward’s lack of lateral quickness and physical strength will give NBA decision-makers pause when evaluating his defensive potential. If Hayward struggles to deny dribble penetration consistently, he could be limited to a much smaller role than he would if he emerged as even an adequate team defender.

Looking at Hayward’s defensive potential, it is important to note how much time he spent defending the four spot for the Bulldogs last season. Regardless of who he matched up with, Hayward was a fairly effective defender for two reasons: First and foremost, he never gave up on a play -- although some players were able to get a step on him off the dribble, Hayward consistently stayed with the play and rarely gave his man a free pass to the rim. Second, he doesn’t overcommit, and seems to understand the limitations of the player he’s defending. While neither of those tendencies will assure him success in the NBA, they certainly won’t hurt his transition.

Heading into workout season, it will be intriguing to see how Hayward treats the draft process. He’s left himself the opportunity to return to school if he doesn’t like what he’s heard by the May 8 deadline, but he’s being projected as a lottery pick by some draft services. Hayward’s decision will certainly make the draft more interesting if he decides to go pro. There are a handful of wings he could be matched up with in workouts -- players like Paul George and Devin Ebanks, as well as a player cut from a similar mold offensively in Luke Babbitt -- that would provide an excellent gauge for how he will fare athletically at the next level.

Looking at Hayward’s body of work, it is difficult to knock what he could bring to the table in a complementary role. Smart and savvy, he is a coach’s dream. But his lack of athleticism raises questions about his long-term potential. Hayward is being projected all over the board at this point. It will be interesting to see how his stock changes throughout the draft process.

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