NEW YORK — Richard Jefferson has played alongside Gordon Hayward for six months, just long enough to develop this detailed scouting report: Great shooter. Skilled passer. Capable defender. Terrible poker face.
To demonstrate the point, Jefferson is playfully needling Hayward, the Utah Jazz's 23-year-old do-everything swingman, and watching him dissolve into laughter.
"He has the worst poker face," Jefferson says.
To this, Hayward quickly objects.
"Maybe I have the best poker face, if I'm always laughing," he says. "If I'm always laughing, how do you know if I'm ever serious or not?"
The logic is hard to argue. And really, Hayward has probably needed the laughter as a cushion against a disappointing season, and the poker face as a bulwark against his hazy future.
Hayward will be a restricted free agent this summer, and despite his struggles this season, he figures to be a hot commodity: the best young non-superstar on the market. The Jazz want to keep him.
But Hayward could be pricey—potentially commanding $10 million a year or more—and interest will be high. About half the league could have significant salary-cap room this summer.
"It's weird to think about," Hayward said, "just because it's been four years and you kind of see yourself as staying with whatever team you get drafted by. But we'll see where it goes. I can't worry about it now. I'm just excited about where it can go."
The top tier of likely free agents is well known, headlined by Miami's LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; New York's Carmelo Anthony; Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki; San Antonio's Tim Duncan, Memphis' Zach Randolph and the Los Angeles Lakers' Pau Gasol.
All are established All-Stars. Most of them are likely to stay put.
The next tier is potentially more fluid and more intriguing, with restricted free agents Hayward and Eric Bledsoe (Phoenix) and the unrestricted Lance Stephenson (Indiana) and Kyle Lowry (Toronto). All of them could be in play when the market opens July 1.
Hayward might be the most intriguing of the group—a 6'8", long-limbed, multi-skilled and highly versatile player who has not yet entered his prime. He can play three positions, handle the ball, run the offense, rebound and shoot from just about anywhere.
He is regarded as one of the top 10 players available this summer—not necessarily a franchise star, but a solid No. 2 or No. 3.
Though his scoring numbers have been modest, Hayward's across-the-board averages speak to his value.
As of Thursday, he was averaging 15.9 points, 5.2 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Only four other players are averaging at least 15-5-5: Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Michael Carter-Williams.
|Gordon Hayward career stats|
In January, Hayward dropped a career-high 37 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, scoring Utah's last 17 points of the game. He's reached the 10-assist mark five times this season. He has flirted with a triple-double on multiple occasions.
"I think, to me, the biggest surprise was how versatile he is, the amount of rebounds and assists that he logs," said Jefferson, who joined the Jazz last summer. "I think he's going to become more of a prolific scorer."
That was the expectation last summer, when the Jazz decided to let Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, their two leading scorers, leave in free agency. The attention, and the offensive responsibility, shifted to Hayward.
It's been a rough transition. Without the inside scoring threat of Jefferson and Millsap, the floor has been more cramped and defenders are free to stick to Hayward on the perimeter. His long-distance shooting—a strength since he entered the league four years ago—has suffered.
Hayward is shooting just 30.7 percent from three-point range, a massive dip from his 41.5 rate last season.
"It's been different this year," Hayward said. "Teams haven't really left me. I haven't even shot the ball well, so I don't know why they haven't left me. But that's just kind of how it's been. I've been getting a lot different shots this year than I have in the past."
Nearly 69 percent of Hayward's field goals came via assist last season, per NBA.com. That rate has dropped to 50 percent for all field goals this season. Just as striking: Hayward is converting only 33 percent of his catch-and-shoot chances.
"Last year we had such a huge post presence with Al and Paul that I got a lot of swing-swings, a lot of spot-up shots, a lot more than this year," Hayward said. "And this year has been more of a playmaker, so my shots have been more floaters, one- or two-dribble pull-ups, things like that. It's been a lot more contested shots."
Richard Jefferson, who has assumed a mentor role, said Hayward has also been limited by a conservative playbook.
"We don't get a lot of easy buckets," Jefferson said. "We don't necessarily play the style that would favor him. Because he's a great athlete, he's a great runner, so an up-and-down style might favor him."
Hayward's frustration has been evident to teammates and coaches and exacerbated by Utah's general regression this season. The Jazz are 22-43, last in the Western Conference, and will finish with their worst record since Hayward arrived, as the No. 9 pick in the 2010 draft.
Hayward joined a sturdy Jazz team anchored by Deron Williams and steered by the legendary Jerry Sloan. Within months, both men were gone—Sloan to retirement and Williams to New Jersey—and the Jazz stumbled to a 39-43 record.
Utah made the playoffs the following season, only to get swept in the first round by San Antonio. The Jazz finished a respectable 43-39 last season, only to miss the playoffs anyway.
Now the Jazz are in full rebuilding mode, with a rookie starting point guard (Trey Burke), two still-developing big men (Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter), a third-year shooting guard (Alec Burks) and Hayward in the middle of it all.
"I've kind of seen it all already," Hayward said. "It's been an up-and-down year for us as a team. We've had moments where you can see our potential and see kind of the future a little bit. And then we've had moments where you see the inexperienced, younger Jazz team."
The rotation will get younger still, and potentially much more talented, with the addition of another high draft pick this June. The future seems promising enough, whether Hayward stays or not.
The Jazz tried to sign Hayward to an extension before the season, but talks broke down, with Hayward's representatives seeking a deal in excess of $50 million over four years, according to Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski.
"I wanted it to be done," Hayward said. "It just didn't work out."
Rival executives say that Hayward is probably worth about $9 million per year, but he is expected to seek a deal that averages at least $10 million to $12 million a year.
Because Hayward is a restricted free agent, the Jazz could let him test the market and find his best offer, then decide whether to match it.
Working in Utah's favor: Although many teams will have cap space this summer, executives are also trying to conserve their flexibility for 2015, when Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rajon Rondo could hit the market, and for 2016, when Kevin Durant reaches free agency.
For now, Hayward is trying to keep the free-agency talk at bay, his focus on the current season, his poker face fixed—in a smile, of course.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.