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.
He also responded well when Corbin sent him to the second unit in early March — a move some might have considered a demotion, but one that allowed him to touch the basketball more often and to rekindle his inner fire while being The Man off the bench.
"I think it got his confidence back," Corbin said. "We were able to put the ball in his hands more, so he was able to come off and read situations more and he just took off from there. Because now he can see the different places he can get the ball, the timing of different cuts to get it and then (know) what he can get once he gets into different areas."
Sometimes, that's rim-rattling dunks as the 6-foot-8 athlete attacks through the air.
Sometimes, that's much-needed outside bombs to keep opposing defenses honest while packing the paint to hinder Jazz bigs Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap.
Sometimes, it's the effective mid-range game, where he can make a living curling and shooting a la Hornacek if he continues to fine-tune that offensive weapon.
"He's getting more comfortable. He's getting more confidence," Jefferson said. "He's a great player who can do a lot of great things on both ends. He's still young. There ain't nothing but upside for him."
And, Hayward admitted, plenty of work to do.
On the offensive end, Corbin is confident his youngster will eventually get better at quick reads, seeing what's going on in the periphery before the ball gets to him, recognizing when and where screens are coming from and knowing what options in the Jazz system are next in line.
"He's getting better and more comfortable at that," Corbin said.
The player whose motto is "Improve Every Day" said he wants to work on "overall consistency," but the humble kid is even willing to admit to making strides in that area.
"Beginning of the season, I would have good games here or there, but then some bad games. It was kind of spotty," Hayward said. "These past couple of games, I've been doing a lot better with that, just making sure I'm doing whatever I can to help my team win."
That includes back-to-back 20-point games and a concerted effort to rebound more.
The Jazz are also impressed by Hayward's ever-improving grasp of playing NBA-level defense, which has been an adjustment.
"He's learning how to get stops," Corbin said. "He's learning how to play different guys at different times."
Corbin listed areas in which Hayward can improve: weakside and help defense, learning when to get in an offensive player's face and when to back off, for starters.
"But," Corbin said, "his effort is there. … He's rangy. He is really quick. He's focused on doing it. It's different from what they played in college and he's still trying to work some of that stuff out."
Hayward said it's been an important change to stop second-guessing himself and just play. Go with the flow. Play like the NBA version of the guy who led Butler to the NCAA championship game.
So does Hornacek.
"I think he looks like he's more confident in being one of the main guys," Hornacek said. "I thought early in the season he was still trying to defer plays to our veteran guys."
Teammates compared his bench potential to Manu Ginobili, but he's played even stronger since being reinstated into the starting lineup in injured Josh Howard's absence a couple of weeks ago.
"He plays hard every second," Hornacek added. "He's playing the all-around game. He can make passes. He can score. … His rebounding has jumped. He's blocking shots. He's doing it all. That's what we want out of everybody, but for him being a young guy, it's great."
Hayward knows there will continue to be bumps in his road. He'll make mistakes, miss shots, get burned. It's more important to him how he responds and learns from errors — an attitude that accompanies his reassured sense of belonging in the world's best basketball league.16 comments on this story
"They drafted you for a reason," Hayward said, "so just go out there and play like it and not worry about anything else."
Hayward's quiet competitiveness and boosted belief have his team excited to see what happens as his bright future unfolds.
"He's playing with great confidence," Hornacek said. "When you do that and play hard, good things happen."
That's true no matter what the driver license or trash-talking fans happen to say.
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