HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Now that Gordon Hayward has the max offer sheet — four years, $63 million — courtesy of the buzzing Charlotte Hornets, there’s no reason to debate whether he’s worth such big bucks that will top $14 million in Year One.
The 6-foot-8 small forward/shooting guard will be one of just seven players at the wing positions under contract (at the moment) for next season to make at least $14 million: Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay, Eric Gordon and Kevin Durant.
But it hardly matters if Hayward is worthy of such a deal or not. It’s what he’s getting. A lot of teams have a lot of cap space to fill and the Hornets, who nabbed free agent Al Jefferson from the Jazz last summer and are eager to add more scorers after finishing 24th in offensive rating (101.2 points per 100 possessions) last season, didn’t see a better option so Michael Jordan green-lighted his front office to go all-in for Utah’s restricted free agent.
Hayward can’t sign the offer sheet until Thursday and then Utah will have 72 hours to match. The club has consistently sent signals that it plans to do just that. Hayward would then return as the face of the Jazz, a club that won 25 games last year and one he apparently would prefer to leave behind for the further-along Hornets, a surprise playoff team last season in the inferior Eastern Conference. (Hayward reportedly was in discussions with other teams including Phoenix, but chose Charlotte.)
If Hayward indeed returns to Utah (and our David Aldridge details why the Jazz are well-positioned to match), any personal disappointment must be kept private and dismissed quickly. A contract of this size must be owned.
Hayward, 24 and entering his fifth season in the league, will have to be motivated to lead a quick team buy-in with new coach Quin Snyder, and establish himself as the voice inside the locker room. Hayward is admittedly the quiet type, and there’s nothing terribly wrong with that — it took Dirk Nowitzki time to turn up his volume — but on such a young team that includes second-year point guard Trey Burke and incoming rookie Dante Exum, Hayward is the player to which all eyes will turn.
An encouraging attitude and positive body language on the court will be essential, too. The youthful Jazz are going to struggle this season, there’s no way around it. For $63 million, Hayward will be expected to keep the team moving forward through tough times. He can’t hang his head or appear disengaged when things go wrong, as he did at times last season. He’s got the baby-face look, and there’s not much he can do about that, but he’ll be playing on a man’s contract, and expected to perform as such.
As for his production, hopefully Hayward will be spending the majority of the summer in a gym shooting thousands of jumpers. Each season his scoring average has increased and, in fact, he put up career-best numbers last season in scoring (16.2 ppg), assists (5.1) and rebounding (5.2).
However, his overall shooting percentage (41.3) hit an all-time low and his encouraging 3-point shooting from 2012-13 (41.5) dropped to a career-worst 30.4 percent last season as his attempts increased to a career-high 280.
Alongside Burke and Exum, especially as the rookie gains his footing as the season progresses, and Derrick Favors down low, the 3-point shot should be on high on Hayward’s menu on most nights. Utah last season finished 25th in the league in 3-point percentage (34.4) and 23rd in 3-point attempts per game (6.6). Hayward is capable of giving both categories a significant boost.
With the big pay day, come bigger responsibilities. Hayward must be prepared.