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Utah Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward is working hard to prove he can play in NBA

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 5 2015 1:06 a.m. MDT

Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward, right, is a good passer, coach Jerry Sloan says, but needs to improve his shooting.   (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward, right, is a good passer, coach Jerry Sloan says, but needs to improve his shooting. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY— For Gordon Hayward, it was an easy decision.

Honolulu or Minneapolis?

Of course, he chose the latter. While his good buddies from Butler — Shelvin Mack, Garrett Butcher, Ron Nored and Chase Stigall — were beating up on the Utah Utes last Wednesday in Honolulu, where it was a balmy 79 degrees, the Utah Jazz rookie forward was spending the day in frosty Minneapolis with his Utah Jazz teammates, where it was a bitter 15 degrees with snow-lined streets.

Before Minneapolis, Hayward had spent the previous few days in the garden spots of Milwaukee and Cleveland.

But Hayward was perfectly happy to be cooped up in hotel rooms of cold Midwestern cities, while Garrett, Shel and the boys were frolicking on the beaches of Oahu in between games at the Diamond Head Classic.

Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward, right, is a good passer, coach Jerry Sloan says, but needs to improve his shooting.   (Ravell Call, Deseret News, Tom Smart, Deseret News) Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward, right, is a good passer, coach Jerry Sloan says, but needs to improve his shooting. (Ravell Call, Deseret News, Tom Smart, Deseret News)

"I missed out on that," Hayward said with a wry smile prior to leaving on the trip that included three cold Midwestern cities. "But I'm happy with where I am and excited about looking forward."

While his actual decision to turn pro obviously didn't come down to going to Hawaii or Minnesota, Hayward made the difficult choice last April to forgo the rest of a promising college career and make the leap to the NBA at the tender age of 20.

With his long hair and baby face, Hayward still looks like he could be in high school. Heck, he doesn't look like he even needs to shave yet, but here he is, one of fewer than 400 players in the world who plays in the National Basketball Association.

Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward, right, is a good passer, coach Jerry Sloan says, but needs to improve his shooting.   (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward, right, is a good passer, coach Jerry Sloan says, but needs to improve his shooting. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

"Any time you can say you play the sport you love for a living, it's pretty cool," he says. "You can't beat that."

Before he ever stepped foot on the EnergySolutions floor this year as a peach-fuzzed rookie, Hayward was already familiar with the arena and city where he would eventually make his home.

Hayward and his Butler teammates spent most of a week in Salt Lake City last March for the NCAA West Regional at EnergySolutions Arena. They came in as underdogs among the four schools, which included Syracuse of the Big East, Kansas State of the Big 12 and perennial NCAA entrant Xavier, but went home with a pair of upset victories.

In the first round, the Bulldogs knocked off the Orangemen 63-58 as Hayward led the way with 17 points. Then in the regional finals, Hayward scored 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead a 63-56 victory over Kansas State, earning tournament MVP honors.

Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward, right, is a good passer, coach Jerry Sloan says, but needs to improve his shooting.   (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward, right, is a good passer, coach Jerry Sloan says, but needs to improve his shooting. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Hayward and Butler then headed off to the Final Four in their hometown of Indianapolis, where they pulled off another upset against Michigan State in the national semifinals. In the finals, the Bulldogs hung with Duke all the way and came within inches of winning when Hayward's desperation 3-pointer from halfcourt bounced off the rim at the buzzer of a two-point loss.

Over that magical two-week period, the nation discovered Hayward, who likely would have been an All-American this year and a candidate for player of the year honors had he stayed in college. But so did the Utah Jazz and several other NBA teams, who saw the potential in the athletic, late-blooming Hayward, who grew up playing guard before sprouting several inches in high school.

"It was definitely an exciting time," Hayward said of the Bulldogs' NCAA run. "It was a good time for us. I had some good memories and was looking to make some more."

So when he was playing in Salt Lake City last March, did Hayward ever dream that he could be playing on the same ESA floor six months later?

"During the tournament, I wasn't thinking about the NBA at all," he said. "I was really just thinking about the next game and what we had to do to win. I didn't really start thinking about the NBA until about a week after it was over."

After consulting with his family and college coach, Hayward decided the time was right to declare for the NBA and revealed his decision on April 14.

The Jazz had the No. 9 choice in the June NBA Draft, thanks to a pick they received from the New York Knicks in a long-ago trade, and they surprised a lot of folks by choosing Hayward, who was projected to go in the middle of the first round.

"I had such a wide range that I would have been happy to play for anyone," said Hayward. "But coming here was especially cool."

For Hayward, it was not an easy decision to leave after just two years of college for the NBA.

He was close to his teammates, particularly the five other players in his recruiting class — Butcher, Mack, Stigall, Nored and Emerson Kampen.

"All of the guys, six people in my class, are my best friends," Hayward says. "I still talk to them on a regular basis. I either text or talk to them on the phone."

On the night of the draft, they all gathered with other Butler players at coach Brad Stevens' house to watch and see where their teammate was going..

"It was like Selection Sunday," Stevens recalled last week at the Diamond Head Classic. "Our guys are all really excited for him and want him to do well. This is a team that tries to do things for each other and a program that believes in team. He's still a big part of that and always will be."

Most 20-year-olds are either still living at home or away at college, not living by themselves in a new city a thousand miles from home, the situation Hayward finds himself in these days, living alone in an apartment in Salt Lake.

To help with the big change in his life, Hayward's father, Gordon Sr., came out from Indiana with him in the fall and stayed until recently.

"It's still a little bit of an adjustment being on my own," young Hayward says. "My dad just left — he was here with me all the way up through Thanksgiving — so I'm now just on my own. It's different, but exciting."

Hayward said that's the biggest off-the-court adjustment he's had to make.

"I've never been on my own before," he said. "Butler was like 20 minutes from my house, so I was pretty much at home. I never had my own apartment and made my own meals for myself and all that. So that's a big adjustment."

On the court, the biggest adjustments for Hayward have been defense — he seems to get more than his share of fouls as he tries to keep up with the bigger and faster NBA players — shooting, and the general pace of the game.

"I think the shot clock is definitely an adjustment, because it makes the decision-making quicker," he says. "You have to do things faster with the ball, whether you're going to pass or shoot and defensively whether you're going to help or stay with your man. So the extra 11 seconds makes a difference."

Coach Jerry Sloan points to his shooting, while praising other parts of his game, saying, "His shooting has hurt him as much as anything. But he's worked on that very hard and hopefully he'll continue to work on it, so he can make open shots. He passes the ball well and goes after the basketball rebounding it."

Hayward doesn't point to one aspect of his game that needs the most work.

"It's everything," he says. "You're on a totally different level, everything's got to be fine-tuned and sharpened a little bit."

The Jazz rookie knows he needs to improve his outside shooting as a wing player in the NBA, and he works with former Jazz player Jeff Hornacek before nearly every practice, shooting at least 100 shots with fellow rookie Jeremy Evans as Hornacek keeps track of their success from a variety of spots on the floor.

Earlier in the year, there was some talk that the Jazz might start Hayward at the big-guard position, and he has made a handful of starts in place of Raja Bell when Bell was injured.

For the most part, however, Hayward only gets in games sparingly and was even on the inactive list for a game last week, although in his last outing he helped the Jazz in a fourth-quarter comeback win at Minnesota. It's been that kind of rollercoaster ride so far for Hayward.

"It's hard. My expectation was to get out on the court, but I realize it's going to take time and there's a lot of time to learn," he says. "I try to be ready to go out there and play when (Sloan) calls my name and play as hard as I can and when I'm on the bench to try to learn from all of the veterans on the team. (Sloan) is obviously a phenomenal coach so I just try to soak up as much as I can because there's so much to learn."

Even though Hayward hasn't played very many minutes so far this year and hasn't produced much in the games he has played, Sloan sees a bright future for his rookie.

"He's doing very well," Sloan said. "We just need to get him some playing time. He's made a lot of progress from when he's started. His inexperience gets him in trouble sometimes, but I think he's going to be just fine He's a young guy who has a lot of athletic ability. He's a guy who's going to be a good player in this league."

His college coach, Stevens, says he tries not to think about what would have been if Hayward had stayed with the Bulldogs this year, but he has little doubt about Hayward's future.

"He's obviously got a great basketball IQ. He's a guy that wants to get better and a guy that will work to get better and is in a great situation where he can grow and develop in a class organization," Stevens said. "I see nothing but a bright future ahead. Gordon is that he cares about one thing — winning. And his team is still winning."

Hayward says he has never been to Hawaii and would have loved to enjoy the sunshine this past week with his teammates, who advanced to the finals of the tournament with wins over Utah and Florida State.

He said he planned to text his old teammates to see how Hawaii was.

But Hayward isn't concerned that he's missing out on a trip of a lifetime.

"It would have been fun to be able to spend time with my teammates," he said. "But with the kind of position I'm in now, I mean, I can probably go whenever I want in the offseason."

That's what a $5 million contract will do for a person.

Then Hayward laughs and says, "Maybe we'll all go and make it a trip sometime."

The Hawaii trip notwithstanding, Hayward has no regrets about his decision to turn professional.

"As far as the decision, I'm happy with what I did," he said. "There are times when I feel, it would be fun to go back and play with those guys again. But you have to move on and put both feet forward."

e-mail: sor@desnews.com

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