SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — All Gordon Hayward could do was smile as he fielded question after question last week about his expected free agency.
It signaled the beginning of the Jazz offseason, where Hayward’s decision could have the biggest impact on Utah’s future since All-Stars Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams changed teams within an eight-month span in 2010-11.
“These opportunities don’t come around very much,” Hayward said. “That’s why you hire an agent, to deal with this type of stuff. I’m sure he’s going to go through all of the options for me, let me know what can happen. I know there’s a lot of stuff that can definitely go down. So, once I sit down and talk with him, we’ll move forward from there.”
Hayward has a player option for next season on the contract he signed in 2014 but is expected to forgo that and become an unrestricted free agent. He’s likely to receive a maximum contract wherever he signs, and the Celtics are rumored to be in the mix with his college coach Brad Stevens now leading the East’s No. 1 playoff seed.
The first-time All-Star had a career year, averaging 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists and leading the Jazz to the second round of the playoffs. The franchise hadn’t qualified for the postseason since 2012 and hadn’t won a playoff game since 2010.
Winning is a top priority for the seven-year veteran and the Jazz still have a young core highlighted by defensive player of the year candidate Rudy Gobert.
“Coming from that little scrawny, shaggy-haired kid that wasn’t really playing (and grew) into an All-Star,” Jazz forward Joe Ingles said. “I truly believe he really likes it here. He loves the organization and the team. At the end of the day, for him, it’s about winning. … Obviously, the organization is committed to that. The next step is getting that team around him.”
General manager Dennis Lindsey has work to do to continue to build that winner. The Jazz took a huge step when he traded for George Hill and Boris Diaw and signed Joe Johnson last summer.
Hill averaged a career-high 16.9 points and shot 40.3 percent from 3-point range and gave the team the point guard it had been missing. But Hill will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Additionally, Ingles will be a restricted free agent and is expected to be courted after his career-high 44.1 3-point percentage ranked No. 3 in the NBA and after showing versatility in the playoffs.
Hill called Hayward his little brother and said the two will be in constant contact throughout the process because Hayward’s decision will influence his.
“I have a son, so that’s my first responsibility,” Hill said. “Taking care of my son and fiancée, making sure everything is fine with them. I love to win. I love good teammates and solid locker room guys. All those things will be into play. … Where can I help the most?”
Team President Steve Starks said the Jazz will remain aggressive in improving the team.
“We want to build on the successes of this year,” Starks said. “We’ve put ourselves in position to be aggressive and be attractive for any player that’s a free agent. We’ll be aggressive first retaining our core guys and that starts with Gordon Hayward.”
The Jazz were the No. 1 defensive team during the regular season and upset the Clippers in seven games as the No. 5 seed. They were overwhelmed in Round 2 by the Golden State Warriors, who beat the Jazz on Monday night to complete a four-game sweep.
Utah could use more offense next season, whether that comes from the growth of Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Dante Exum or from new acquisitions. Either way, the Jazz would love to stay healthy after being ravaged by injuries the last two seasons.
Coach Quin Snyder declined to list specific needs, saying those can evolve through development over the summer, self-scouting and depending on what the roster dictates.
“There’s uncertainty,” Snyder said. “It’s almost like those questions will be better answered then.”
Johnson’s already lobbying guys to stay.
“The sky’s the limit for us,” Johnson said. “Just out of one year together, we had a pretty good season. I hope whatever has to happen happens for those guys to come back.”