This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
There's little doubt that Gordon Hayward is one of the top six or seven small forwards in the NBA. At the high end, he could even be at number five, depending on how you feel about Carmelo Anthony and Paul George.
Indeed, last year was a career one for Utah's 6-foot-8 leader. Not many guys in the league are good for 20 points, five rebounds and five assists a night. And yet Hayward was awfully close, at 19-4-4.
So this season for Hayward individually is all about taking that breakout year and expanding upon it. How does he do that? By becoming a better closer at the end of games.
The elite teams are able to do that. It's common knowledge in the NBA that general offense only takes you so far. The teams that win titles - or at least compete for them - are the ones who have guys who can go and get buckets down the stretch. Golden State has Steph Curry. Obviously, Cleveland has LeBron. Even San Antonio - probably the best ball-movement oriented team in the league - has Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli.
It's a skill that not many have, and one that can launch Hayward even further up the ladder if he can acquire it.
"Learning how to close is huge in the NBA," Hayward said. "As Favs (Derrick Favors) and I get more experience, it will become easier and easier. Last year it was good to gain those experiences. So this is another good test for us this year to learn how to do that."
As a group, the Jazz probably have more potential "closers" than one would think. Obviously, Hayward is the big potential answer. Favors is the one guy who can draw a double-team in the post with his back to the basket.
But Alec Burks and Rodney Hood are probably two guys who could one day get to that level. Why? Well, Burks is one of the better players in the NBA at getting to the free-throw line. Hood's all-around offensive package is immense. He can score from 3-point range, from mid-range and at the basket. He just has to stay healthy.
But most of this responsibility undeniably lies with Hayward. If he can take his game to one more level, he will certainly be worthy of all-star consideration. And in a league full of wing talent, Hayward is close to being elite. And at 25, he's still got a ceiling for improvement.