SALT LAKE CITY — On occasion, fans on the road still tease Gordon Hayward about looking like Justin Bieber.
He still gets razzed about his video-game hobby. Still has a girlfriend in college. Still could pass for a teenager, even when he lets the scruff on his boyish face do its thing.
But you needn't look at the date on Hayward's driver license — yes, he's old enough to have one — to realize he's quickly growing up.
In non-birthday ways, the recently turned 22-year-old is maturing before the eyes of fans, players and coaches around the NBA.
"I just think Hayward is one of the bright young stars in the league," Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after his team escaped Utah with a 107-105 win Wednesday. "He's the whole package. 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."
Just as Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor thought he would be after drafting Hayward — an unpopular No. 9 pick by some booing fans — following his sophomore season at Butler.
"The only thing I hope is in two years you're not booing," O'Connor told disgruntled fans who'd hoped for a franchise-saving big man in the 2010 draft.
Less than two months remain in that two-year grace period, and passionate Jazz faithful are no longer booing — about Hayward, at least.
Since the All-Star break, Hayward has been on a tear.
In those 23 games, he's averaged 13.5 points, including a 38.8 percent clip from 3-point range, and 4.6 rebounds. That's up from 9.4 points, 24.6 percent shooting from deep and 2.8 boards to start the year.
Hayward's most recent five-game stretch is the best statistical span he's had as a pro — 18.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists. In that period, he also had a block-a-thon in Boston (YouTube-worthy back-to-back swats) and notched his first-ever NBA double-double of 20 points and 10 rebounds against childhood role model Steve Nash's team. Of course, Hayward would happily turn those stats in for four more wins in that 1-4 team slump.
It's an exciting evolution for Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin to witness "his person come out through it all, and how he continue to work and to get better."
Added Corbin: "(Hayward's) realizing that not only does he belong here, but he can be one of the upper-tier guys in this league."
The guy on Corbin's staff whom Hayward has been compared to being like — except more athletic and versatile — is also enjoying the metamorphosis.
"He's obviously improving as time goes on, I think, especially these last 10 games," Jazz assistant/former standout guard Jeff Hornacek said. "I think he's found that extra gear. He's taken it to another level, which is great."
The difference between Hayward now and Hayward at the beginning of his sophomore season in Utah?
"I think just the confidence picked up," the shooting guard said. "Once that happened, I was able to just play and stop thinking and just be more comfortable out on the court and just play my game."
Hayward can't pinpoint exactly when that transformation kicked into a higher gear.
"I just started to play better," Hayward said. "I don't know if it was a moment or a game."
Hayward's confidence, he admitted, was boosted when NBA assistant coaches voted him on that Rising Stars Challenge squad. Feeling respected, he went out and had a solid, 14-point outing.
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