SALT LAKE CITY — He hasn't exactly played like one lately, but Gordon Hayward gave a refreshing reminder Monday that he indeed is still a rookie.
Only 2-1/2 years removed from high school, the Utah Jazz guard's young eyes light up after the morning shootaround as he talked about playing against Tracy McGrady and the Detroit Pistons for the first time.
"From my perspective, you've got T-Mac and Rip Hamilton coming off the bench, and my whole life those are like superstars," the 20-year-old Hayward said. "They obviously have some talented guys."
The wide-eyed Hayward, who's just in the third month of his NBA career, admitted to still being a bit awed by the competition he faces on the court.
"It is fun because growing up you watch them and kind of idolize them a little bit and in the backyard calling their name out," Hayward said. "So, being able to play in the same league and compete against them, it'll be a lot of fun."
Veteran Raja Bell can understand where his younger teammate's coming from. The 34-year-old got extra excited to play one particular player when he entered the NBA in 2000.
And no, it wasn't Quincy Lewis.
"MJ was still in the league then," Bell said. "I caught him at the end of his career, so he was special for me."
Bell spent a year and a half in the CBA after his college career at Florida International, so he said that helped him from being too starstruck.
"I wanted a piece of everybody. That was just me, though," Bell said. "I was so hungry to prove I belonged that I was ready every night, just ready to prove somebody wrong. … It wasn't like I was in awe anymore. I was hungry."
Jerry Sloan said he was mostly excited to simply see action as a rookie when entered the league with the Baltimore Bullets in 1965, so the opponent didn't matter.
"I just hoped I got to play," Sloan said. "I played about 400 minutes my first year, didn't play very much. It was exciting."
Even the Hall of Fame coach had an exception: Oscar Robertson.
Of course, his excitement lasted until teammate Johnny Kerr gave him the scouting report on Big O.
Regarding Robertson's talents and tendencies, Kerr told Sloan: The only thing he doesn't do enough of is shoot the ball."
Added Sloan: "I thought I didn't know what I was getting myself into because he worked very, very hard. He could just annihilate ya."
NOT BACK YET: For the third straight game, the Jazz were without Mehmet Okur Monday because of his sore back. MRI results revealed that his pain is spasms, which the 6-foot-11 center has suffered occasionally throughout his career.
After getting a cortisone shot through an epidural on Friday, Okur had hoped to return to practice Sunday and play Monday. But the pain-killing shot didn't help as much as he'd hoped, and this recovery continues to be slower than others.
"This is the worst I ever had as a back pain," the 31-year-old said, "and it takes a little bit longer (to get better) than usual."
Okur believes coming back from his eight-month Achilles rehab has been hard on his 265-pound frame.
"I start to play and my body (is) not used to those kind of movements on the floor — pushing, running, jumping, things like that," he said. "(That's) the reason why it is way worse than ever."
Okur is crossing his fingers he'll be back in action soon.
"It's just tough to say. I know you want a timetable, but I don't have one," Okur said. "I want to be able to practice (today), hopefully, and hopefully (play) next game."
MUTUAL RECOGNITION: Though he's a first-year player, Hayward said he occasionally gets recognized and takes some ribbing from NBA players whose college teams were eliminated by the Butler Bulldogs en route to the NCAA championship game last April.
"It's cool," he said, "that they saw what we did last year as a team."
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