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Spenser Heaps,
An NBA Playoffs logo hangs beside an image of Utah Jazz player Gordon Hayward at the Vivint SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 20, 2017 ahead of the NBA playoffs games between the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers.

SALT LAKE CITY —

Almost three years ago in this space, I questioned and criticized the Utah Jazz for matching the Charlotte Hornets' then-max money offer to Gordon Hayward.

At that time, quite frankly, I wasn't sure if the 6-foot-8 small forward was worth the money — $63 million over four years — that the Hornets were willing to pay him.

Sure, his scoring average had steadily gone up every year he'd been in the league — from 5.4 points per game as a rookie to 16.2 ppg during the 2013-14 season — but his corresponding field goal shooting numbers had dropped every season during that span, falling from 48.5 percent in 2010-11 all the way down to a dreadfully low 41.3 percent in his fourth year in the NBA.

Of course, you'd expect that, when a player is taking a lot more shots than he used to, his percentage might decline a bit. But Hayward's steady drop seemed a bit alarming to me.

Even worse, his 3-point shooting percentage had slipped to an almost frightening 30.4 percent by Year 4 in the big boys' league.

And I feared at the time that perhaps we'd already seen the very best of what this young man could do, and perhaps the Jazz should just let him move on and play for Charlotte instead.

Well, turns out that (as my wife often tells me about numerous things) I was completely wrong.

The Jazz obviously matched Charlotte's offer and kept Hayward here.

And over the last three seasons, Hayward has not only earned what seemed like a lot of money back then — he made $16 million-plus this season — but his performance over the past couple of years would certainly warrant giving him whatever it takes to keep him here in the years ahead should he, as expected, opt out of his current contract in July and become an unrestricted free agent.

Yes, I repeat, I was wrong. I stand corrected, guilty as charged.

Indeed, if the Jazz hope to continue the impressive progress they've shown over the last four years — from just 25 wins in 2014 to 38 in 2015, 40 in 2016 and 51 in 2017, when they also won a first-round playoff series for the first time in seven years — then they need Hayward to stay here in a Jazz uniform.

"Stayward" as the billboard campaign, scheduled to begin this week in Salt Lake City, will say.

He definitely made a believer outa me this season, when he averaged 21.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game — both career bests — along with 3.5 assists per night and earned his first All-Star Game appearance.

What's more, though he has become Utah's go-to guy on offense, his shooting numbers — 47 percent from the field, including almost 40 percent from beyond the arc — were his best since his rookie season.

And his 84.4 percent proficiency from the foul line was the best of his seven-year career.

Then in the playoffs, Hayward had an even better performance, averaging over 24 points per game — and more than 26 ppg if you throw out that nine-minute, three-point, food-poisoned performance in Utah's opening-round series triumph over the Los Angeles Clippers.

No, he's probably not ever going to be the vocal leader of this ballclub, though he has stepped his game up in that regard over the last couple of years as well. Instead, he leads by example with a tremendous, determined work ethic and a willingness to do all the little things that make a player great.

He is the undisputed best player on this team and, if the Jazz hope to continue their upward trend in the Western Conference in the future, they need to keep him around. That once-skinny kid has become "the man."

And the Jazz certainly know it.

It won't be easy to keep him here. The Boston Celtics, whose coach, Brad Stevens, was Hayward's college coach at Butler University, will likely come calling with a hefty free-agent offer. And it'll no doubt be tempting.

Not only can the Jazz pay him the most money — somewhere in the neighborhood of $180 million over five years — but other NBA suitors could only offer him at most a four-year deal for $132 million. That fifth year, paying him around $41 million, would seem to give Utah the upper hand when it's all said and done.

Hayward could also choose to become the franchise's "Designated Player" under the new collective bargaining agreement, which would allow him to earn approximately $235 million over the next six years by staying in Utah.

Keeping Hayward under contract would also likely help the team re-sign free agent point guard George Hill, should he choose to stay here, or perhaps land another prospective free agent this summer based on the team's upward trajectory.

Ultimately, of course, the decision is Hayward's to make. He must weigh his options and choose what's in his best interests.

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He's already said all the right things: how much he and his wife like it here, what a great place Utah is to raise a family, and how appreciative he is about how he's been treated by fans and the Jazz organization over his seven years in the Beehive State.

Soon the Jazz will put their money where their mouth is, and the ball — just as it so often is during the grind of an 82-game NBA season — will be in Hayward's hands.

Here's hoping he decides to stay and proves me right — that he's truly become an elite player in this league — just as he proved me wrong over the past three seasons.