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If you are a Utah Jazz fan, sit back, think about Gordon Hayward's first few years in an NBA uniform.

Not many who were there can forget Deron Williams whizzing a ball at Hayward's head, and screaming at him before a packed house at then EnergySolutions Arena. And who can erase the memory of Delonte West sticking his finger in Hayward's ear during an altercation?

Hayward was different then. Of course, the skills were there — waiting to emerge from a body that wasn't fully developed. But Hayward's mental game wasn't fully developed, either. He was soft-spoken, maybe even a little timid at times. On a team full of veterans, the Indiana boy who made fame for himself at Butler University wasn't about to make waves.

"Things were different then," Hayward said. "I was different. I think I'm more mature now. I've grown up."

Looking at the Hayward who currently takes the court for the Utah Jazz, it's quite difficult to imagine anyone giving him a wet willy without risking serious consequence. Today, heading into Wednesday's home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers, Hayward is 25 years old. Today, Hayward is in his sixth professional season, a few years away from the prime of his career. He came to the Jazz as a teenager. Now, he's a husband, a father, an avid video gamer and a fully bloomed 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds of muscle.

He's also becoming a great basketball player, if he's not already there. Hayward's now widely considered one of the best small forwards in the league, a unique mix of skill and athleticism on both ends of the floor. Coming off a season where he averaged 19 points, five rebounds and four assists per game, many predict his first NBA All-Star appearance could come this year.

Three or four years ago, not many could've imagined that.

"He's one of the best players in the league," Jazz shooting guard Rodney Hood said. "He's been real aggressive this year. He's always lathered up on the defensive end. He gets out in transition and he's so versatile. It's just great to have him out there, and guys just want to go out there and play for him and with him."

Besides the beard, the added responsibilities and the new muscular body, Hayward is different this season. For the first time, he's taking ownership of the team, him and Derrick Favors emerging as the two leaders on and off the court.

This year is one of transition for Hayward, after all. He's now in year six of his career. He's been to the playoffs once, and the Jazz were swept out of that series. Armed with a max contract, and now a team that doesn't seem to rely solely on his production night in and out, Hayward is willing to do whatever it takes to get the Jazz to the postseason.

"I think we all know what we'd like to have happen this year," Hayward said. "I think we all know where we want this thing to go."

If that means Hayward is taking on a ton of responsibility, then so be it. Offensively, Hayward's able to play any position outside of center. He's one of Quin Snyder's primary ballhandlers. At times during the first three games, Hayward's played power forward in small lineups. He's counted on to score, to rebound, to set others up and to make up for Utah's lack of elite point guard play.

So far this year, he hasn't shot the ball well, making 12 of 34 shots (35.3 percent) from the field. At the same time, Hayward's contribution in Saturday's win over the Indiana Pacers was invaluable.

While he shot 4 for 11 and never got into an offensive rhythm, he was spectacular defensively in large stretches on Indiana star Paul George, never letting him get to the rim. This was especially true in the second half, as the Jazz pulled away from the Pacers and turned what had been a close game into a rout.

"I think Gordon's established himself as one of the best players in the league," Snyder said. "I thought he played really well against Indiana, he's made a lot of plays for himself and his teammates. I think he's gotten some offensive fouls that, to me, are baskets. So I like what he's doing and where he's going."

Hayward's been aware of the love bestowed upon him by the media. But he doesn't seem fazed by it. At Butler, he made his name as a do-everything type, and that skill has translated into the NBA. Last season, on the heels of signing his contract extension, Hayward did what many thought would be difficult: He played up to it.

He knows he has to be even better this season. He knows that teams are going to try and take him out of games, and that he's now firmly entrenched as Utah's first offensive option. He's come a long way from the night his point guard threw a basketball at his head, a long way from the questions of what his NBA ceiling could be.

Now, Hayward is established. But he wants more. A lot more.

Twitter: @tjonessltrib —

About Gordon Hayward

• In college, led Butler University to 2010 national championship game

• Has increased his scoring average in each of his five seasons as a pro

• Is in the second year of a maximum contract extension

• Became a first-time father this past summer —

Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz

P When • Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Where • Vivint Smart Home Arena


Radio • 1280 AM

Records • Jazz 2-1; Blazers 2-2

About Portland • The Trail Blazers lost four of their five starters from last season over the summer. … Damian Lillard scored 34 points as Portland defeated Minnesota on Monday. … The Trail Blazers defeated the Jazz twice in the preseason. … Portland reached the playoffs last season as Northwest Division champions.

About Utah • Power forward Derrick Favors is questionable with flu-like symptoms. … The Jazz are above the .500 mark for the first time since the 2012-2013 season. … Utah is playing eight of its first 10 games away from home. … Utah center Rudy Gobert is averaging 13.3 rebounds per game.