Utah Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward is working hard to prove he can play in NBA

Published: Saturday, Dec. 25 2010 11:00 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY— For Gordon Hayward, it was an easy decision.

Honolulu or Minneapolis?

Of course, he chose the latter. While his good buddies from Butler — Shelvin Mack, Garrett Butcher, Ron Nored and Chase Stigall — were beating up on the Utah Utes last Wednesday in Honolulu, where it was a balmy 79 degrees, the Utah Jazz rookie forward was spending the day in frosty Minneapolis with his Utah Jazz teammates, where it was a bitter 15 degrees with snow-lined streets.

Before Minneapolis, Hayward had spent the previous few days in the garden spots of Milwaukee and Cleveland.

But Hayward was perfectly happy to be cooped up in hotel rooms of cold Midwestern cities, while Garrett, Shel and the boys were frolicking on the beaches of Oahu in between games at the Diamond Head Classic.

"I missed out on that," Hayward said with a wry smile prior to leaving on the trip that included three cold Midwestern cities. "But I'm happy with where I am and excited about looking forward."

While his actual decision to turn pro obviously didn't come down to going to Hawaii or Minnesota, Hayward made the difficult choice last April to forgo the rest of a promising college career and make the leap to the NBA at the tender age of 20.

With his long hair and baby face, Hayward still looks like he could be in high school. Heck, he doesn't look like he even needs to shave yet, but here he is, one of fewer than 400 players in the world who plays in the National Basketball Association.

"Any time you can say you play the sport you love for a living, it's pretty cool," he says. "You can't beat that."

Before he ever stepped foot on the EnergySolutions floor this year as a peach-fuzzed rookie, Hayward was already familiar with the arena and city where he would eventually make his home.

Hayward and his Butler teammates spent most of a week in Salt Lake City last March for the NCAA West Regional at EnergySolutions Arena. They came in as underdogs among the four schools, which included Syracuse of the Big East, Kansas State of the Big 12 and perennial NCAA entrant Xavier, but went home with a pair of upset victories.

In the first round, the Bulldogs knocked off the Orangemen 63-58 as Hayward led the way with 17 points. Then in the regional finals, Hayward scored 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead a 63-56 victory over Kansas State, earning tournament MVP honors.

Hayward and Butler then headed off to the Final Four in their hometown of Indianapolis, where they pulled off another upset against Michigan State in the national semifinals. In the finals, the Bulldogs hung with Duke all the way and came within inches of winning when Hayward's desperation 3-pointer from halfcourt bounced off the rim at the buzzer of a two-point loss.

Over that magical two-week period, the nation discovered Hayward, who likely would have been an All-American this year and a candidate for player of the year honors had he stayed in college. But so did the Utah Jazz and several other NBA teams, who saw the potential in the athletic, late-blooming Hayward, who grew up playing guard before sprouting several inches in high school.

"It was definitely an exciting time," Hayward said of the Bulldogs' NCAA run. "It was a good time for us. I had some good memories and was looking to make some more."

So when he was playing in Salt Lake City last March, did Hayward ever dream that he could be playing on the same ESA floor six months later?

"During the tournament, I wasn't thinking about the NBA at all," he said. "I was really just thinking about the next game and what we had to do to win. I didn't really start thinking about the NBA until about a week after it was over."

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