Don Nelson has always been seen as a coaching pioneer—particularly on the offensive end of the court. And if the man who's largely credited with the development of the point forward position has any reason to pay attention to the Utah Jazz this season, it would be to keep an eye on Gordon Hayward.
"He has to be a leader, has to rebound well, has to defend, has to have an assist-to-turnover ratio of at least 2 to 1 and has to be 6'5" or taller," wrote Luke Winn, who authored a 2009 Sports Illustrated article on the evolution of the point forward. According to Winn, those criteria were what Nelson required of a player to man this unique position.
Hayward could assume the role this season for the Jazz.
On media day, Utah coach Tyrone Corbin indicated that he wants to use Hayward as a playmaker. And after the first day of practice, Locked on Sports' David Locke said the team discussed "Hayward's increased role as a ball handler..."
So, it looks like it's definitely going to happen. The questions are: How effective can Hayward be in the role? And what's the benefit of even having a point forward?
Hayward as a Point Forward
Let's go back to Nelson's requirements, starting with leadership. It's something that Hayward will be forced to do, as he's been with the Jazz longer than anyone else on the roster. And even though he's just 23, he's still the oldest of the presumed starting five.
In a piece for the Deseret News, Jody Genessy talked about Hayward stepping up after the departure of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, saying, "And, despite admitting it’s kind of a weird spot to be in after his previous follow-the-leader role, Hayward embraces the challenge and position."
The evidence of that has been seen in training camp. Hayward's been more vocal than in the past, and teammates young and old seem to be responding positively. It's certainly early, but building a foundation of trust now will pay off in the long run.
Next on Nelson's list was rebounding, and this will take some work as well (or maybe just recommitment). In college, Hayward was a strong rebounder, averaging 8.2 during his sophomore season at Butler.
But as a wing in the NBA, he's become accustomed to taking off down the floor and letting Jefferson and Millsap fight for the boards.
This season, Hayward needs to help Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter replace the production that Millsap and Jefferson took with them. And as a point forward grabbing rebounds, he can immediately start the break without having to throw an outlet pass.
There can't be any of those breaks without some stops, and Hayward's pretty underrated as a defender.
Jazz opponents averaged about one fewer point per 100 possessions while Hayward was on the floor, and he doesn't get enough credit outside of Utah for his shot-blocking.
LeBron James is widely known as the king of the chase-down block, but Hayward isn't far behind. For his career, the Jazz wing has averaged 0.7 blocks per 36 minutes, a shade under LeBron's 0.8. And just watch how many of Hayward's were chase-downs:
For his career, Hayward has a 1.7 to 1 assist-to-turnover mark—just short of Nelson's requirement of a 2-to-1 ratio.
Part of that is the result of the Jazz having not used him on a consistent basis to make plays and facilitate for others. But it already looks like that's changing. During Utah's open scrimmage at Energy Solutions Arena, Hayward ran the offense several times.
On a few possessions, he brought the ball up the floor himself and initiated the offense. Other times, he rotated over from the wing, took the ball up top and then started the play. And Trey Burke was on the floor for some of those sets.
Even with a point guard Utah traded two picks to get this past summer in the game, it's clear that the team wants Hayward handling the ball a lot. That may lead to more turnovers, but extra assists will surely come as well.
How he'll collect the most dimes is through the pick-and-roll. He's already shown the potential to direct those types of plays. Watch this one from last season against the Boston Celtics:
I broke this down in a previous article for Bleacher Report:
...We see an example of Hayward perfectly operating a pick-and-roll with Paul Millsap. As Jason Terry goes over the screen and Brandon Bass tries to show and trap, Hayward splits them with a quick, low left-to-right crossover. As soon as Kevin Garnett steps up to help the two defenders who just got beat, Hayward hits the cutting Millsap for a layup.
Hayward will have a lot more opportunities to make plays for his teammates this year. They won't all be as pretty as the one in the video, but the evidence that he's capable of creating for others is clear.
You must be this tall to ride—which means at least 6'5" if you want to be a Don Nelson-prototype point forward. At 6'8", Hayward more than exceeds the minimum.
The advantage is obvious: the higher the vantage point, the easier it is to see the floor.
Benefits of a Point Forward
If Hayward can pull this off, he'll help the Jazz in at least two ways: He'll take the pressure off the rookie point guard Burke, and he'll make some interesting lineup combinations possible.
Burke's summer-league struggles have been well documented, and shouldering the playmaking load in its entirety could lead to a lot more turnovers and missed shots for the rookie, which in turn might affect his confidence.
Giving Hayward some of that responsibility could make Burke's transition into the league a little smoother. And it would provide coach Coach Corbin greater versatility with his lineups.
According to the Winn article, Nelson initially used point forwards to be able to play alongside multiple guards who were better shooters than playmakers.
Utah isn't loaded with shooters right now, but if they acquired someone like Jimmer Fredette or wanted Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush on the floor without benching Hayward, suddenly those point-forward skills would come in handy.
Can Gordon Hayward be effective as a point forward for the Jazz?
And the best backcourt option might be Alec Burks and Hayward. Think about the mismatches that combo would create. Burks is a 6'6" combo guard who played some point last year and worked with John Stockton this summer.
Now imagine lining him up next to a 6'8" point forward.
I'm not advocating Burke going to the bench, but the possibilities are fun to think about.
Which is really a sentiment that can be applied to this entire season for the Utah Jazz. The presumed starting lineup is Burke, Burks, Hayward, Favors and Kanter—all lottery picks from the last four years, all of whom are enormously talented and all are still largely mysteries due to playing behind or in the shadows of productive veterans.
There might not be another potential lottery team with brighter possibilities than the Utah Jazz.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.