Would Gordon Hayward be 'perfect' for Hornets? Cody Zeller says yes

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comJuly 9, 2014 

Would free-agent forward-guard Gordon Hayward be a good fit with the Charlotte Hornets?

No, Hornets forward Cody Zeller replied Wednesday; Hayward would be a “perfect” fit.

“I love his game. He plays really fundamental basketball, creates a lot for his teammates,” Zeller said following summer-league practice.

“(Passing is) one of his talents. And he shoots really well and he’s big for a guard. I think he’d be perfect for us.”

Hayward, 6-foot-8, who played his first four seasons with the Utah Jazz, has agreed to sign a four-year, $63 million offer sheet with the Hornets once the NBA’s moratorium on signings ends Thursday. The Observer reported the Hornets’ agreement with Hayward early Wednesday morning.

But Hayward’s signature doesn’t necessarily secure him for the Hornets. He’s a restricted free agent, so the Jazz retains the right to match any offer. The Jazz has up to three days to exercise a match once the offer sheet is presented.

The Jazz has sent out signals it would match. A source told the Salt Lake City-based Deseret News on Wednesday that Hayward signing with the Hornets is a “non-issue for the Jazz” because the team will match.

The $63 million and four guaranteed seasons was the maximum contract the Hornets could offer Hayward under NBA rules. His average salary – $15.75 million – would be the largest on the team, exceeding the $13.5 million the Hornets annually pay center Al Jefferson.

If the Jazz drags out this process to the maximum time limit, the Hornets could have $14.8 million in cap space (Hayward’s first-season salary) tied up until Sunday.

Hayward visited the Hornets on Monday and Tuesday, and the team made an elaborate sales pitch that included “Welcome Gordon Hayward family” messages on the marquee outside Time Warner Cable Arena and throughout the building.

What is it about Hayward that justifies so much cost and ceremony?

Zeller and Hayward both grew up in Indiana. Zeller has played with him and against him. Zeller summed up Hayward like this:

“He plays the right way.”

What does that mean? Hayward’s former college coach at Butler, Brad Stevens, was the first to declare the then-sophomore an NBA player in 2010. Now coaching the Boston Celtics, Stevens said this to Sports Illustrated:

“He was the guy who could jump up and dunk it after a change-of-direction move off of either foot equally, and that’s unusual.

“And he always made the right basketball play. His decision-making wasn’t affected by the situation.”

That play-making could be important to the Hornets, who are losing their secondary ball handler – power forward Josh McRoberts – to the Miami Heat in free agency. Along with averaging 16.2 points and 5.1 rebounds last season, Hayward averaged 5.2 assists.

Only three frontcourt players – Miami forward LeBron James, Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant and Chicago center Joakim Noah – averaged more assists last season than Hayward. All three were first-team All-NBA in 2014.

No sure thing

Hayward was far from a sure thing as a high school basketball player. He once considered giving up the sport to concentrate on tennis (in which he was all-state twice). He led Brownsburg High to an Indiana state title as a senior in 2008, but received limited recruiting interest. Three Division I schools offered scholarships – Butler, Purdue and IUPUI.

He chose Butler in part because Stevens had 6:30 a.m. practices. A serious student, Hayward wanted the class flexibility to pursue an engineering degree.

Over his high school years his height shot up from 5-11 as a freshman to 6-8 as a senior. If that was of any benefit, it taught him the game as a guard, hence his ball handling.

Then he excelled as a college sophomore, averaging 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds in Butler’s run to the national championship game. His half-court heave as the buzzer sounded against Duke missed by an inch. That shot would have won the title for Butler.

Hayward had some misgiving about turning pro in 2010, sacrificing two college seasons of eligibility, but the decision was justified when the Jazz chose him ninth overall. The then-Bobcats had no picks in that draft.

A father’s guidance

Hayward leaned heavily on his father, also named Gordon, to gather info before the decision to turn pro. The senior Gordon has guided his son’s career since he took up basketball at 4. According to a story in the Deseret News, father-and-son had a term for their daily reviews, “Van Talk,” for the Mazda MPV the family drove.

The father’s guidance is just as strong today. A source familiar with the situation said he was in Charlotte for his son’s two-day visit with the Hornets. The family left impressed enough that Hayward canceled a visit with the Phoenix Suns and committed to the Hornets’ offer.

Hayward is coming off an uneven fourth NBA season. His scoring average rose from 14.1 points in 2012-13 to 16.2 in 2013-14. However his field-goal percentage slipped from 43.5 percent to 41.3 percent. His 3-point shooting, at 30.4 percent, was the worst he’s been from the NBA arc.

An important change for the Jazz last season – via free-agency, Jefferson left for Charlotte and power forward Paul Millsap left for the Atlanta Hawks. Each had All-Star-type seasons with their new teams.

Reuniting Hayward with Jefferson, who played a role in his recruitment to Charlotte, could be a boost for both. The Hornets need scoring and more 3-pointers at small forward and shooting guard. Jefferson needs another perimeter threat like Hayward to make it harder for opponents to double-team him in the lane.

It’s an intriguing prospect, re-pairing these two. Hornets owner Michael Jordan talked in June of adding another “superstar” to play with Jefferson. Hayward isn’t that, but he’s a logical fix to some of this team’s flaws.

The Hornets have done everything they can to make this happen. But now it’s up to the Jazz, which has $30 million in cap room, no other star and the power to route Hayward back to the Rockies.

Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; @rick_bonnell

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