Hayward’s hot hand helping Jazz during stretch run

He was booed on draft day, still gets teased about his Justin

Bieber hair and recently endured the strangest, most expensive

”Wet Willy” ever.

Utah Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward, however, has managed to rise

above it all, finally living up to the expectations Jazz brass had

when they made him a lottery pick in 2010.

His emergence this year, after being benched then reinserted

into the starting lineup because of injury, has helped the Jazz

remain in the mix for the final Western Conference playoff

spot.

”Hayward is starting to really feel his oats as far as playing

with confidence and feeling comfortable,” San Antonio coach Gregg

Popovich said April 9 when the Spurs visited Salt Lake City. ”He’s

really a great player, moving without the basketball, constant

motion, aggressive all the time, thinking the game.”

That night, the 6-foot-8 Hayward scored 16 points and added six

rebounds and two blocks in the Jazz win. Two days later, he scored

29 in Houston.

In the last five games he has averaged 20.2 points, 4.4.

assists, 3.4 rebounds, 1.2 steals and is shooting 64 percent (14 of

22) from 3-point range.

Suns coach Alvin Gentry has called Hayward ”one of the bright

young stars in the league.”

”He’s the whole package,” Gentry added. ”He can put it down.

He can shoot it from the perimeter. He is a slasher-and-cutter, and

on top of all of that, he is a really good defender.”

He also has a physical style that can irritate opponents,

perhaps because they don’t see past the boyish looks.

Consider his own little block party in Boston on March 28, when

he rejected two shots in the span of five seconds by Keyon Dooling

and Avery Bradley.

By then, Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson already was a

believer.

”You can make the case that he’s the most valuable player for

them against us,” Jackson said.

On Jan. 7, Hayward took over with 14 seconds left and the game

tied, sprinting up the court, splitting two defenders and drawing

the foul on a layup attempt. His free throw helped seal Utah’s

win.

In that breakout effort, Hayward finished with 18 points, six

rebounds and four assists.

In a March 17 rematch, he showed flash at both ends, with the

Jazz down two.

Hayward tracked down 6-9 forward Dorell Wright on the fast break

and blocked him from behind. He then sprinted the other way, took

the pass at midcourt, drove left-handed through traffic and

delivered a crowd-pleasing two-handed jam.

”Those kind of energy plays for him … show tremendous growth

and determination, and it shows a lot of toughness about who you

are,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said.

Who Hayward is may be evidenced by how he lives.

In a league of millionaires, Hayward included, he still puts

himself on a monthly budget, lives in a nice but modest two-bedroom

suburban apartment, and drives a car – a Honda Accord – known more

for its reliability than muscle.

Yet to know why he didn’t defend himself when Delonte West

jabbed a finger in his ear during the second quarter of Utah’s

triple-overtime win against Dallas last Monday – an act that earned

West a $25,000 fine – one must go back to his days playing tennis

in the Indianapolis suburb of Brownsburg.

”He’s always in control of his emotions,” said his father,

Gordon Scott Hayward. ”Tennis really taught him that. He’s had

guys throw rackets at him, lose their temper, and that’s when he

knew he had the other guy. He’s also smart enough to know the

person who retaliates is the one who gets caught.”

That’s not to say the younger Hayward isn’t fiercely

competitive, a trait he gets from dad, a high school tennis player

who grew up idolizing John McEnroe.

Hayward’s mom, Jody, also is competitive, and still holds an

annual New Year’s Eve ping pong tournament that she fights to win.

But she grew up idolizing Bjorn Borg, and insisted on

sportsmanship.

Jazz fans have been showing some sportsmanship of their own.

They haven’t been booing as they did during the 2010 draft when

Utah took Hayward with the No. 9 overall pick.

The elder Hayward, who agrees when fans seated nearby chide his

son for not shooting enough or missing a layup, understands why

they initially booed.

”(General manager) Kevin O’Connor plays everything close to the

vest and he led everyone to believe they would go big,” the elder

Hayward said. ”Then they pick a skinny, small wing instead of the

big man he advertised they needed.”

As a rookie, Hayward averaged just 5.4 points and 1.9 rebounds –

and was even deemed ”a typical rookie” by perennial All-Star

Deron Williams.

But Hayward, despite having to be told by Butler coaches that he

was good even as he was leading the Bulldogs to the 2010 NCAA title

game, said he’s known he belonged in the NBA since he was a rookie

taking on the Los Angeles Lakers in preseason.

He scored 26 points that night and realized ”I could play in

this league with any of these guys.”

It helped that Kobe Bryant told him, ”You’re gonna be a helluva

player,” while the two stood away from the ball awaiting a free

throw.

Others agree.

Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said fans are seeing the

natural maturation of a player who is taking advantage of more

playing time.

”Those types of situations are good for a young player like

him,” Carlisle said. ”Now he can just play the game. He knows

he’s going to be out there. He’s taking advantage of it, and he’s

going to keep getting better and better.”

The 22-year-old Hayward, with humble Midwestern roots, is quick

to acknowledge he hasn’t arrived.

”It’s an honor that they’re saying that, but I realize it’s a

long way to go, a lot of work to do,” he said.