His potential's unlimited," [Earl Watson] said. "I think Gordon's the type of player, he's so skilled and so unselfish, he just wants to make everyone better. We need Gordon to be that player who takes that next step.
SALT LAKE CITY — Mention Butler basketball, and one name will pop up in the ensuing conversation.
No offense to Matt Howard, Ronald Nored or other Bulldogs, current and past, but Hayward is as synonymously tied to the Indianapolis-based university as The Jimmer is with BYU.
Water-cooler question of the day is: Could the Hoosier State hero's name eventually be linked in similar fashion with the Utah Jazz?
Rephrased, is this 21-year-old — whose selection sent boos general manager Kevin O'Connor's way on Draft Day 2010 — capable of becoming face-of-the-franchise material?
Hayward blushes when you ask him.
"I don't think that I look at it like that," a humble Hayward said. "I just look at it as (I'm) a basketball player trying to help his team improve, help his team win — hopefully just being more consistent this year, being more of a contributor."
Ahhh. Sweet music to his team's ears.
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin would love nothing more than for Hayward to be one of many squad standouts.
"The ceiling's as hard as he works. He's an extremely talented cat," Corbin said. "I think he's relaxed a lot more this year. He knows what he's facing this year. Last year, it was kind of eyes wide open, and it was different things, different nights. He has a better feel of what's ahead of him now."
That future makes Earl Watson smile.
"His potential's unlimited," the veteran said. "I think Gordon's the type of player, he's so skilled and so unselfish, he just wants to make everyone better. We need Gordon to be that player who takes that next step."
He's not trying to turn Hayward into an overnight superstar, but Watson believes, even expects, the young Jazz guard-forward is capable of following a similar improvement trajectory as his old Seattle/Oklahoma City teammate, Kevin Durant.
Erratic rookie year. Breakout sophomore season. Force uniform makers to reprint No. 20 Hayward jerseys.
Or something like that.
Watson isn't dishing out an empty stardom guarantee or predicting MVP-like numbers for Hayward. He just has an optimistic opinion of a potential-packed player.
"KD's rookie year, I seen him just go crazy like the way Gordon did last year," Watson said. "That next year is when KD really became KD. And that third year is when he just became one of the best players in the NBA, and those are the same progressive steps and mentality that I think Gordon should have."
O'Connor didn't bite when asked if he thought Hayward has go-to-guy promise. But the Jazz GM revisited receiving Bronx cheers by disgruntled Jazz fans at a draft party after he picked the Butler star No. 9 overall in 2010.
But O'Connor also sent high praise Hayward's way: "He makes good basketball decisions and he can also score. A lot of times, those are guys you want with the ball either late in the clock or late in the game."
Heady hoopsters with clutch skills are also the kind of guys marketing staffs put on billboards and posters.
Hayward wasn't a big name or big player so many Jazz fans hoped to acquire with a rare lottery selection the team received from the New York Knicks via a trade.
O'Connor shared his wish after/while they voiced their dissatisfaction with the pick 18 months ago.
"The only thing I hope is in two years you're not booing," he said.
Only 10 months later, Jazz fans, now disgruntled for other reasons (read: departures of Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams), were doing the opposite. Cheering loudly.
Outplaying Kobe Bryant in L.A., dropping 34 on Denver in the season-finale and averaging almost 15 points down the stretch turned Hayward into a fan favorite.
The rookie even won over a fan in Los Angeles.
"I'm very, very fond of him. He's a very skilled all-around player," said Bryant after Hayward's 22 points lifted Utah to a one-point Staples Center win in April. "I think he is going to have a very bright future in this league. (Hayward) reminds me of a more talented Jeff Hornacek. Jeff couldn't put the ball on the floor as well as he can."
Hornacek wasn't offended. He agreed with Kobe, and not only because Hayward has functioning knees.
"I think he'll end up being better than I was," the Jazz assistant said. "(Hayward)'s got the height, length. He knows how to play the game. He makes the smart plays. He can finish. The shooting, obviously he works on it and he shoots it pretty well now.
"I think Kobe's right ... he's got more potential to do a lot better than I did just because of size and athleticism."
Another thing might help him end up being a player whose skills and contributions are listed somewhere between "Better than Hornacek" and "Durant-like superstar:" Hayward's drive.
Fans, media and fellow NBA players might point out his successes — a 19-point game in Sacramento, a 5-for-5 3-point night against Minnesota, hitting double figures in five of the final six games, successfully catching a high heater from Deron Williams.
But Hayward is so motivated to elevate his level, he focuses on lowlights — perhaps the 33 games he didn't score in, maybe going 1-for-10 against OKC, feeling lost for part of his first year, doing what he did to frustrate his former teammate with the rocket arm.
Yes, he averaged 9.1 points and 25.8 minutes after the All-Star break. But he only averaged 3.6 points and 12.8 minutes the first half. He ran wrong plays on occasion, yet dazzled (see: dunks at Indiana and L.A.) at other times.
"You hope to use that (strong finish) and gain from that, take some of that and use it as confidence," Hayward said. "I'm more focused on improving from the games that I didn't do that well, making those better and being more consistent."
Steady success is more likely to be found thanks to increased belief from that late push and a bigger comfort level now that his pink-backpack-carrying year is over.
"He's more relaxed," Corbin said. "His confidence level is a little bit up now. He's not wondering if he belongs. He knows he can play in this league now."
Hayward, who averaged 5.4 points and 1.9 boards, got better with time, O'Connor said. He learned lessons with the passing of the calendar and performed better with more minutes. Hayward's cautiousness to not make mistakes — at the risk of making good plays — decreased with increased opportunity.
"He was trying to figure out what not to do instead of what to do for a while," O'Connor said. "Once he figured out what to do … you saw a vast improvement. He wasn't afraid to make a mistake because he'd done two or three good things."
An 11-year vet, Watson's advice for the second-year swingman is simple: "I just want to encourage him to be aggressive offensively."
Like the time Hayward jumped off his wrong foot, lost and regained the ball in-air and slammed L.A.
"That was tough," he said. "That's something Gordon can do and he can do more of."
As long as he's assertive.
"Gordon's such an unselfish player ... (and) has to learn to be more selfish offensively scoring the ball, and he has the ability and skill to do it," Watson said. "He's so talented and so quick, way more athletic than people think."
When word got out this summer that Hayward had become a professional video-game player, some people got the wrong impression.
The 21-year-old didn't sit in his parents' basement shooting pixelized bad guys 24/7. He didn't live on a Cheetohs and energy drinks diet.
Becoming a futuristic human and alien warrior wasn't his only offseason focus.
Rather, Hayward was a two-game standout who honed skills in both of his professional ventures. Kinda like the Deion Sanders of the NBA and pro video-gaming.
Minus the doo-rag.
And with priorities straight.
"Basketball player first," he said.
Sure, Hayward had ample time for his StarCraft game while locked out, but he didn't just improve his thumbs' dexterity. He worked out the rest of his body twice a day, hooping in Indiana gyms, doing explosion drills with bungee cords for quickness and, yes, pumping iron.
The daily devotion's results: 10-plus pounds of muscle. His matured 6-foot-8 frame now weighs 220, up from a rookie listing of 207. He's even got some guns — no controller needed.
"I think it will help him tremendously," Corbin said.
Hayward can hold a better line to the basket. He can use shoulder shrugs to drop defenders instead of being pushed around. His driving balance has improved. He can guard bigger players.
The Jazz's 3-point-shooting leader from last season didn't Popeye up enough to lose his outside touch. His shot remains on the verge of becoming deadly.
"You don't want to get too big where you lose some of the stuff you have," Hayward said. "It's all just being out there and playing and making sure you're continually on the court."
Sounds like a future game plan the Jazz would love to follow.21 comments on this story
"At this point (last year), Gordon was still in awe of being in the NBA," Hornacek said. "Especially with the way the season ended, he (now) knows that he's a big player in this league, and he can be. That will help his confidence."
Could boost his marketability, too.