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.
Continue reading this story on the...