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Essay: Projecting Future Value, Small Forwards

Rising: Gordon Hayward

Every 20-year-old rookie in the history of professional basketball has had to prove himself. There are always different variables relating to hype, expectations, and ability, but at the beginning every single one of them must demonstrate why he’s on the team—to his coach, his teammates, and the fans. Not to make this a racial issue, because those are stupid, but like so many collegiate superstars who coincidentally happen to be white and adored by college basketball enthusiasts, television producers, respected analysts, and, most importantly, the millions of national audience members who ritualistically gather on the fringe when March rolls around, Gordon Hayward’s initiation into the NBA was especially uphill.

After Utah’s preseason expectations degraded into wet, leaking garbage, Hayward found himself in the middle of one hellacious hurricane. Try as he did, it wasn’t easy to avoid, especially as a ballyhooed first round draft pick.

Instead of building Hayward up, then team leader Deron Williams seemed to give up on him before Halloween. As the season went on, Hayward’s overall numbers weren’t scorching, but on a micro-level did we really expect them to be in his rookie year? Five points, two rebounds, and an assist a night aren’t going to sell branded merchandise (let alone get you laid), but Hayward had his moments; ridiculously impressive moments they were, indeed.

In one sequence against Toronto (I know, I know) he looks like a camp counselor rightfully elevating himself above nine wide-eyed fourth graders. Granted its for eight seconds (and against the Toronto Raptors) but oh how wonderful, and rare, it is. Hayward combines fundamental smarts with startling athleticism, timing a block that would make Bill Russell proud, then controlling the ball and taking it the other way before the Raptors knew what the hell was happening, and finishing a perfectly played fast break with a no look pass and subsequent layup. It’s the type of do-it-all play rookies don’t make. Any rookie.

One game doesn’t make you a player in this league, but it can definitely serve as inspirational hope. On April 5th, the Jazz beat the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center. Hayward tied teammate Paul Millsap as the game’s scoring leader with 22 points (two more than Kobe, and Hayward missed three of five free-throws) on top of six rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block. Not too shabby for a rookie playing in one of the league’s most distracting environments. It’s the type of performance we can only hope to see from Hayward on a regular basis, as he finds his place and nestles comfortably into a league he clearly belongs in.

In his moments of brief yet profound success, it’s almost as if Hayward took his opponents by surprise, lulling them to sleep with his teenage suburbia face before picking their pocket or swatting away their weak floater. But players of Chris Paul and Paul Pierce’s caliber didn’t become superstars by lessening their intensity at the game’s highest level. They’re both smart enough to know that once you let up, it’s a long, slippery trip to the bottom—where youngsters like Hayward are crouched, waiting to pounce.

Honorable Mention: LeBron James. As if the best player on the planet didn’t need a source of motivation heading into his ninth season of professional ball. Well, he has one. And it’s scary to think about.

Falling: If the league were to have a 20 team 3-on-3 tournament, with each group consisting of players from one position (example: point guards vs. centers or power forwards vs. shooting guards), small forwards would win, handily. It’s the most talented position by far, and finding someone we didn’t already know who was either on the way down or had already lowered his expectations (Danny Granger, Shawn Marion, Gerald Wallace) was quite difficult. My apologies to the odd man out.

Luol Deng. He’s a conundrum: Perpetually underrated and under-appreciated with fine defensive ability and an increasingly aggressive mindset on offense. But heading into his eighth season with the Bulls, Deng remains undistinguished because of his absence for flair in the drama department. He might’ve been the second best player on the league’s number one overall team last year, and yet he’s painfully dull. The type of dull that can never exist as the second best player on a champion. Despite averaging far and away a career high in three-pointers attempted last season (4.1 per game), he’s still reputed as a so-so jump shooter, posing a threat from an area of the court where teams are willing to embrace your attack with open arms.

I like Luol Deng, and believe him to be the type of player professional basketball needs—the NBA’s sturdy crankshaft. But we’ve seen enough to know there’s no place for him to improve. Small forward is a position defined by versatility and athleticism, and once those two begin to slide—for a 26-year-old who’s coming off a 3985 minute season, not including offseason Eurobasket competition for Great Britain—they’re impossible to replace.


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