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Hayward's hot hand helping Jazz during stretch run

Associated Press Modified: April 20, 2012 at 12:16 pm •  Published: April 20, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — 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.