LOS ANGELES — Gordon Hayward has been in the NBA for nearly an entire season, but the combination of his association with Butler University and another captivating NCAA Tournament run by the Bulldogs have put him in the spotlight more than anything he's done as a rookie.
Not that the Utah Jazz player minds.
Acting as Butler's unofficial ambassador/poster boy, the 21-year-old hot interview commodity has been featured during the NCAAs on interviews ranging from ESPN, to Yahoo Sports, to … you name the publication or TV/radio station.
"I've been talking about Butler for a while," Hayward said at Monday's practice. "It's fun being able to talk about them. It makes me proud that people want to talk about them."
Of course, if Hayward continues to play and progress the way he has been, media types will eventually switch the talking points and focus the attention on him instead of his hometown school.
A day after Hayward notched a career-high 19 points on Sacramento, his potential was gushed about by veteran teammates.
"Special" was one word center Al Jefferson used in describing the 6-foot-8 swingman, whose game is maturing despite his boyish looks. (Yes, Hayward almost looked like he could fit in at the high school where the Jazz practiced Monday.)
"He don't know how good he can be in this league," Jefferson said. "It's going to be scary. He's going to be real good."
And Hayward is going to be real good in many aspects of the game, 10-year NBA guard Earl Watson believes.
"I think Gordon is come into his own," Watson said.
Hayward also happens to have a fan in Oklahoma City. The talented guy who pumped up BYU's Jimmer Fredette for being the "best scorer in the world!" also thinks the Jazz have a talented youngster.
"Kevin Durant was talking to me during the game (at Oklahoma City)," Watson explained. "He was like, 'Man, (Hayward) should be starting.' Kevin Durant loves him. He was talking about how good he was in the game."
The fact that Hayward had his worst shooting night as a pro during that March 23 game — going 1-for-10 from the field on his 21st birthday — when he received the compliment speaks volumes about his all-around game.
"The thing with Gordon is he's so versatile," Watson said. "He doesn't just focus on one thing. If Gordon was just a 3-point shooter, everybody would notice how good of a 3-point shooter he really is."
Watson added that Hayward "can do a lot of things, almost everything."
"He's a well-rounded player and he's an unselfish player," Watson said. "He's a playmaker. He can score. He can get his own shot. He can come off picks. He can handle pick-and-rolls. He's a great defender. He has underestimated athletic ability. He's really athletic. He has a (Manu) Ginobili-like quickness to him."
Hayward also has a knack for swatting shots on occasion.
Ask John Wall and Chris Paul.
While compliments are flattering, Hayward realizes how far he's come in this league and how far he has to go to become the productive NBA player he envisions.
"I want to improve everything," Hayward said. "When you go to the next level, everything's got to be better. I think one thing I need to improve a lot is my mindset, being more aggressive and trying to make plays and attack the rim."
Watson is impressed with Hayward's multi-faceted makeover plan. Even so, he acknowledges how the rookie's fix-all approach is ambitious and will require time to achieve. It's helped that Hayward has been able to be tutored by veteran players on the Jazz. That he hasn't been relied on as a starter most of the season — even picking up some DNP-CDs along the way — has also taken pressure off of him and allowed him to concentrate on improving gradually.
"He can do so much that it's going to take him longer to really get more comfortable," Watson said, "because he's working on everything, not just one specific thing."
In the long run, that should make Hayward a more complete weapon in the NBA — and makes Watson look forward to what's in store for the Jazz.
"The future," Watson said, "has to be bright with him and Derrick (Favors) on the same team. … Gordon just turned 21 and, what, Derrick is still 15?"
After laughing about the 19-year-old Favors' age, Watson continued: "Those are two major pieces. Seriously, if you think about it, the future is bright."
Though he likes the direction Hayward is trending, Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin hopes the swingman continues to work on defense and consistency. Corbin has given Hayward ample court time recently, playing him 31 minutes an outing the past seven games to help him develop and because of injuries.
"One of the things he's going to have to work on going forward," Corbin said, "is playing at a higher level the complete time he's on the floor."
Corbin lauded the 206-pounder for improving his strength over the past year.. Hayward has adjusted to the speed of the NBA game, and now opponents can't knock him off his spot like they were able to earlier this season. That, his coach said, has especially aided him on attacking the basket.
"Getting older, you become more mature and just a little stronger," Hayward said. "Me and Jeremy (Evans), we're always in the weight room lifting, so I think it has a lot to do with it as well."
Hayward said he can now bench 600 pounds and squat "about 800," and yes, he was joking. He won't be throwing iron around at Muscle Beach before tonight's game against the Lakers, but adhering to Jazz strength and conditioning coach Mark McKown's plan has helped him fortify himself in ways that come in handy on the court.
"I think the work that we've put in kind of pays off a little bit," Hayward said, "and hopefully it'll be even better next year."
Hayward's range has also improved remarkably from last season. After a solid 3-point shooting freshman year, Hayward only shot 29.4 percent beyond the arc as a Butler sophomore.
And this year with the Jazz — from 3 feet back?
Try a Kyle Korver-like 44.8 percent from long distance.
Watson said Hayward is overlooked as a 3-point shooter, and that's the one area the rookie believes he's come the furthest since a year ago when he missed that famous halfcourt 3-pointer that bounced off the rim in Butler's championship loss to Duke.
"I've obviously extended my range," said Hayward, who often shoots under Jazz assistant Jeff Hornacek's watch.
He's also learning how to deal with the 82-game grind and how to cope when things take wild and unexpected twists and turns (see: losing coaches, an All-Star, lots of games and an expected playoff appearance).
"This has definitely been a learning year for him," Watson added. "He's not only learned the game of basketball, but he's learned the business of basketball with coach (Jerry) Sloan and Deron (Williams) leaving. It's really important for him for his career to keep him kind of aware of everything that goes on in this league."
Including dealing with media.
Hayward chuckled and nodded at the end of an interview Monday when it was mentioned that this was probably the only Q&A session he'd been through in a month with "Butler" not being mentioned.
"You just ruined that," he joked.
Good thing he digs fielding Butler-centric questions as much as he enjoys endless breadsticks and salad at the Olive Garden.
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