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.
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