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Gold medalists surrounded Gordon Hayward. As a member of the U.S. select team, the Jazz guard spent his summer testing his skills against the game's elite: Crossing over Kobe Bryant, helping on defense against Chris Paul, driving to the hoop and crashing into Kevin Love and Tyson Chandler.
It made sense, right? The All-American, golden-haired Indiana native doing his country a solid, helping prepare the Dream-ish Team for an eventual romp through the London Olympics.
Only it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. If you ever need a primer on the class system among NBA players, Hayward's summer experience frames it nicely.
"It was frustrating kind of because we're the reserve team," Hayward said, "and we would get stops on defense and they would set it back up and run it again. I remember going through that when I was a freshman in high school."
Hayward, clearly, is as competitive as ever. What's the point of playing if there isn't a winner?
It's Year Three for Hayward, and he enters this season with an elevated status on the Jazz roster. For the first time, he is the undisputed starting shooting guard, and a primary scoring option on a team without a go-to points producer.
"As an NBA player, you want to be a starter," Hayward said. "You want to be one of the main guys on your team. I've put in a lot of work to get where I'm at."
Hayward says the "game is slowing down," the basketball equivalent of a fastball no longer looking so fast to a veteran hitter. But the Jazz are still waiting for clear direction on what Hayward will become, rather than what he has the potential to be. Will he be the newly aggressive Hayward, taking smart 3s and getting to the free-throw line? Or will his aggression make him the guy stubbornly driving repeatedly at Bryant in a single, clumsy possession as Hayward did on Oct. 17 against the Lakers in Anaheim and never getting by?
"There are times when he's in complete control," coach Tyrone Corbin said, "and there are times he's a little bit of the young Gordon."
Through the preseason, Hayward has been statistically consistent, averaging 11.3 points per game. Last season, Hayward upped his scoring from 5.4 points per game as a rookie to 11.8.
Before Monday's letdown 120-114 loss in Portland, he had scored in double figures in each of the Jazz's exhibition games. In three games, however, he committed four turnovers and only once did he record more than four rebounds.
But it's the preseason, the minutes are limited and progress cannot be charted only by a box score's black and white. Corbin sees that progress in Hayward's approach to the game.
"He's more confident," Corbin said. "He's been around, going into his third season now. He has an idea of what to expect: The length of the season, the exhibition [games are] used to get him in shape and timing wise. I think he understands what he's getting ready to face a little more."
Hayward has consistently said that he spent the summer trying to improve his game overall, rather than any one aspect.
"I said that at the beginning of the season, and that's probably what I'll probably continue to say all season," he said.
However, he acknowledged Monday that if there was one area of emphasis, it was working on his game in the post. At 6-foot-8, he is among the tallest shooting guards in the NBA, and Corbin said he would like to see Hayward use his size against smaller two-guards and when point guards switch onto him.
Ultimately, Hayward didn't get to test his skills as much with the select team as he would have liked.
But the value of the experience, he said, was undeniable.
"I think just being out there," he said, "being selected to the team helps your confidence. It reaffirms that you belong in this league and there are coaches in this league that like what you do and how you do it."
Gordon Hayward file
Position • Shooting guard
Age • 22. College • Butler
Career • Averaged 11.8 points per game last season with the Jazz. ... Drafted No. 9 overall by Utah in 2010 NBA Draft. ... Participated in the summer with Team USA select team, a collection of players who practiced against the gold-medal-winning Americans.