The Utah Jazz were supposed to be the West's next rising team, but their progress has been stunted by injury after injury to key players. Prized young point guard Dante Exum suffered a season-ending torn ACL in the summer, while Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks have all missed significant chunks of time during the season. That's why they sit at three games under .500 after the midway point.
That Utah is even weathering the storm and remaining in the playoff picture primarily comes down to the one constant. That's Gordon Hayward, whose stellar all-around play has peppered over many of the Jazz's holes throughout their difficult season.
Hayward's versatile game was on full display in Utah's thrilling 105-96 overtime victory over the Bulls on Monday. After a slow start in which he was soundly outplayed by Jimmy Butler, Hayward rose to the occasion, scoring 19 points in the second half and overtime to help secure the victory. He stuffed the stat sheet with 27 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in 44 minutes of action.
Hayward's most important shot of the night came late in regulation. With the Jazz trailing by two in the final seconds, he got the step on Butler and finished a tough running shot over Pau Gasol to knot things up:
After forcing a turnover, Hayward was able to free himself up for a potential game-winner at the buzzer, only to miss it badly off the side of the backboard. But he redeemed himself in the extra frame, making the gassed Butler look silly time and time again:
This one-legged 16-foot jumper was especially silly:
The final nail in the coffin occurred when Hayward caught Butler cheating in the passing lane to beat him with a perfect back cut for a dunk:
Aside from all this scoring, Hayward also showed his value throughout with his facilitating skills. With the Jazz lacking a difference-maker at point guard thanks in part to Exum's injury, Hayward and fellow wing Rodney Hood are often tasked with primary ball handling responsibilities.
Hayward's assist numbers are down from past years, but he's still dishing just shy of four helpers a game and was at nearly five per game throughout January. He's adept at running the pick-and-roll and he executed several nifty pocket passes against Chicago:
On this next one, Gobert badly missed the easy shot off the Hayward pocket pass, but the Jazz wing grabbed the offensive board and had the wherewithal to kick it out to Hood for a huge trey:
Hayward's big opening to February comes after he averaged more than 21 points, five boards and five assists per game in January. For the year, he's one of just 10 players to average more than 19 points, five rebounds and three assists, per Basketball-Reference.
That production has been indispensable with all the injury woes the Jazz have dealt with this season. Hayward may not be on the level of the top stars in the league, but his ability to contribute in so many areas is a crucial component of Utah's success. Without him, the Jazz are lost.
Hayward's performance has Utah ranked 10th in offensive efficiency at over 103 points per 100 possessions despite the injuries, which is up nearly a full point per 100 possessions from last year, per NBA.com. The Jazz still play at a league-low pace and have issues with the offense stagnating, but they often look to Hayward to bail them out. He's proven throughout his career that he can take over games. That's evidenced by Monday night's showing and his 25 games with at least 20 points, including three 30-plus point games.
The Jazz have naturally proven to be more formidable when healthy this season. Their preferred starting lineup of Hayward, Hood, Gobert, Favors and Raul Neto has appeared in just 15 games together, but has outscored opponents by over nine points per 100 possessions in 181 minutes, per NBA.com.
Utah's second- and third-most used units (ones with Trey Lyles in place of Gobert and Favors) have enjoyed success as well. Hayward and backcourt mates Hood and Neto have been the constants in all this, and while Hood's development into a bona fide contributor has helped the Jazz, Hayward remains the linchpin.
With the Jazz getting healthier, they're looking like a good bet to nab one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference. And while they're still a point-guard upgrade away from being any type of legitimate title contender, the future is bright for Hayward and company.