Gordon Hayward has an opportunity to break out in 2014 and should be a favorite for Most Improved Player. Of all the players returning to the Utah Jazz for the 2013-14 season, he's the leader in both points and assists per game.
He was third on the team in scoring last year, and the two guys ahead of him (Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap) are moving east to the Bobcats and Hawks, respectively. The three Jazz players who averaged more assists than him are also gone.
It will take more than one player to fill the void left by five, but Hayward figures to be critical in replacing at least a portion of that production.
The fourth-year pro recently talked to The Salt Lake Tribune about the added responsibility he and forward Derrick Favors will be expected to assume:
Knowing that next year we’re going to be taking on a much bigger role puts another smile on my face, and I’m proud that he’s here next to me. I think we’ve both come a long way.
Embracing the bigger role is certainly a step in the right direction. Hayward has been timid at times offensively in the past but cannot afford to be next year.
The other four presumed starters—Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter—are all younger than Hayward. None of them have averaged double figures in the NBA. And the combined number of games they've started equals less than half the number of starts on Hayward's resume.
Opportunity isn't just knocking on the door; it might bust it off the hinges. And if Hayward responds to opportunity the way the last four winners of the Most Improved Player award did, he should be handed some individual hardware in 2014.
Those previous MIPs—Aaron Brooks, Kevin Love, Ryan Anderson and Paul George—all faced similar situations heading into their breakout campaigns.
For the 2010-13 winners, it looks like becoming the league's most improved player is more of a three-year process than an out-of-nowhere sort of thing.
The columns in this graph represent each player's combined averages for points, rebounds and assists. As you can see, there isn't just a jump from Year 2 to Year 3.
One correlating factor between all four players is their number of starts in relation to the increase in production. All had very few or no starts in Year 1, a few more in Year 2 and an entire season's worth in Year 3 (the only exception is Paul George, who started every game in Years 2 and 3).
Hayward's already completed the first two-thirds of the process.
His number of starts actually went down in 2012-13, but his production did increase over the previous year. That was due mostly to his finally finding a bit of aggression on offense. Both his number of shot attempts and points per 36 minutes went up about 20 percent.
If coach Tyrone Corbin starts Hayward all season—as the previous four winners' coaches did for them in the final campaigns of each of their Most Improved Player processes—2013-14 should be the award-winning season for the Jazz wing.
It will take more than simply having the opportunity to start, though. Hayward has to take another step forward in aggression. Not just with an increase in shots but an increase in variety of shots.
These heat maps from Basketball-Reference show how arguably the two best scorers in the league can strike from anywhere on the floor. They move more toward red based on what percentage of the player's total points were scored from that spot.
I'm not saying that Hayward will become Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony, but he plays the same position, has a similar build and can be more effective and less predictable if he adds a mid-range shot.
Last season, he was about 5 percent worse from 10 feet to the three-point line than he was beyond that line. His 36.5 percent from mid-range was almost 10 percent worse than Anthony and Durant.
Defenders can't close out as hard on those two because they have to worry about drives as well as one-dribble pull-up jumpers.
Hayward would benefit from that kind of respect as well. He can earn it by working on his mid-range game and subsequently showing a willingness to use it.
If he does take that step, another 20 percent jump in scoring seems very possible and would put him at about 21 points per 36 minutes.
That alone might be enough to put him in the conversation for Most Improved Player, but to separate from the rest of the field, Hayward needs an increase in all-around production.
The previous four winners of the award all scored more when they got their chance, but they also tallied more rebounds and assists. In the case of George, defense improved too.
Hayward can take strides in those three areas as well.
In his sophomore season at Butler, Hayward led his team in rebounding at 8.2 a game. He was never the biggest guy on the floor, but he showed a consistent desire to chase down boards. With Jefferson and Millsap gone, there could be more rebounds for Hayward to track down. He needs to pursue them with the same energy he showed in college.
As for assists, Hayward is an able ball-handler and a willing passer but has never really been trusted to make plays for others in the NBA. Still, he was fourth on the Jazz in both assists per game and assist percentage last year.
With all three of the guys who ranked ahead of him in those categories gone, it makes sense for Corbin to allow Hayward to play a little point forward in 2013-14.
Finally, there's defense. It wasn't necessary for Brooks, Love or Anderson to win the award, but it certainly helped George. And if Hayward wants to lead the Jazz the way they need him to next year, it would help his case if he does so on both ends.
While guarding opposing wings, Hayward will generally have two decent rim protectors behind him in Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. That doesn't mean he should take unnecessary gambles, but it will allow him to close out a bit harder on shooters, which is what a lot of teams have at the small forward position.
Cutting down the number of threes his opponents make will not only help the team, but his individual reputation on defense as well.
He was already solid last year, as teams scored about one point per 100 possessions less against the Jazz when Hayward was on the floor. If that number rises to around two, he may establish a reputation as one of the league's better wing defenders—another point in his potential case for 2014 Most Improved Player.
Improving his defense, passing, rebounding and scoring outputs with the opportunity a bigger role affords him will likely come naturally for Hayward. Maximizing that improvement is up to him.
I can see Hayward's averages jumping to around 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per 36 minutes if he takes another step forward in terms of aggression, adds a mid-range jump shot, shows more desire on the boards and on defense, and creates a few more opportunities for his teammates.
Those numbers would constitute a solid jump from Year 2 to Year 3 in the Most Improved Player process discussed earlier. It would be comparable to the kind of jumps Brooks, Love, Anderson and George all had in their award-winning seasons.
It would also add even more excitement for a young team brimming with potential.