Utah Jazz at Orlando Magic game preview
Gordon Hayward is not the first name that comes to mind as a potential first-time All-Star this year.
The unassuming forward, playing for the small-market Utah Jazz, has quietly posted strong numbers while toiling in seeming anonymity. He has come a long way from the bright-eyed leader of the upstart Butler team that reached the NCAA championship game in 2010.
Hayward, who missed the first six games of the season with a fractured finger, did not take long to get into his All-Star form. He scored 28 points in Sunday’s win over the New York Knicks and then scored 29 points in Wednesday’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
Entering Friday’s game against the Orlando Magic, Hayward is averaging 25.7 points and shooting 47.2 percent from the floor in three games.
"Gordon’s been very important to us," Jazz coach Quin Snyder told Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune. "It helps anytime you have a good player in your lineup. Having Gordon back is certainly better than having him out. And Gordon’s ability to handle the ball takes some pressure off the other guys who are playing the point for us."
Hayward is not quite the picture of a superstar to many, but he certainly helps galvanize and draw together a team with high aspirations for the season.
But Hayward is not the only one the Jazz rely on. Utah is off to a 5-4 start this season and their vaunted defense is starting to get into high gear, 10th in the league giving up 101.6 points per 100 possessions.
This is a team that relies on Hayward, along with shot-blocking savant Rudy Gobert and steady veteran hands in George Hill, Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson. They are an average offense by all measures and even with Hayward dropping in big numbers they rely on each other as much as anyone.
Hill has blossomed after his trade from Indiana to average 20.4 points and 5.0 assists per game. Rodney Hood continues his maturation, making 46.2 percent of his 3-pointers on his way to 17.9 points per game.
This kind of balanced approach is something the struggling Orlando Magic are still looking to establish.
The Magic lack that potential All-Star player and are instead relying on each other to produce offense. The team has struggled mightily on that front, posting the worst field goal percentage in the league so far this season.
"Collectively, we need to come together and play as a team. One through 15 need to be on the same page in order for us to get wins and for us to compete at a high level. We need to trust each other and trust our coaching staff."
The Magic are fifth in the league in assist rate, getting an assist on 63.8 percent of their made field goals. That would typically be a good sign of an offense moving the ball. But the team’s 98.3 offensive rating is the sixth worst in the league.
The Magic struggle to score, but do have pockets where the offense flows. Most of that occurs when the team gets stops and is able to get out in transition where they have plenty of athletic players who can finish around the basket.
They have not put the puzzle pieces together, though. After winning three straight, the Magic fell to 3-5 with a second straight blowout loss, this time at home Wednesday to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Without the star, many Magic players said their margin for error is small offensively. And their struggles to generate consistent opportunities in the half-court is still a major concern.
In many ways, the Magic’s rebuild this summer was done to try to emulate what the Jazz have built. A balanced squad, based on defense and size without a clear superstar.
With Hayward beginning to emerge at a new level offensively, Utah seems set to knock down that door. Meanwhile, Orlando is still figuring itself out.