New York » Gordon Hayward can hardly believe it himself.
Barely two years ago, he was leading his high school team to a state championship and preparing to join his twin sister in attending a small private college with a limited basketball pedigree, just a few miles from his modest suburban hometown.
Now, the baby-faced breakout star who nearly led the Butler Bulldogs to a national championship last season is the newest member of the Jazz -- taken with the No. 9 pick of the NBA Draft at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, which began with Kentucky's John Wall becoming the widely anticipated No. 1 pick of the Washington Wizards.
"It's been a blessing from God for me," Hayward said. "The past couple of years have been a whirlwind. ... I'm just so excited to be going to the Utah Jazz."
The versatile 6-foot-8 forward from Indiana already has proven to be a controversial choice, though, with the Jazz using only their second top-10 draft pick in 27 years on him instead of a power forward or center to help address their frontcourt issues.
Many of the 3,500 fans who attended the Jazz's draft party at EnergySolutions Arena lustily booed the choice, knowing that several post players -- including Cole Aldrich of Kansas, Ed Davis of North Carolina, Paul George of Fresno State and Patrick Patterson of Kentucky -- remained available when the Jazz picked, after the top seven selections went about as expected.
The reaction was so aggressive -- some fans walked out before an interview with Hayward was broadcast on the video screen -- that vice president of basketball operations Kevin O'Connor felt compelled to take the microphone to defend the choice.
"The only thing I hope is that in two years you're not booing," he said.
Coach Jerry Sloan said the boos comprised a "natural reaction" for fans who "aren't familiar with what we're trying to accomplish. We're trying to get the best player, and sometimes that's not who everybody wanted."
The Jazz wanted Hayward, though, for his versatility, intelligence and ball-handling -- even though center Mehmet Okur is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, and power forward Carlos Boozer becomes a free agent next month.
They believed Hayward was the best player on the floor while leading the Bulldogs through the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament at EnergySolutions Arena in March, and said that every coach with whom they spoke praised Hayward as "the kind of kid that everybody should want on their team, because not only is he a guy that makes everyone better but he's really a good player by himself."
Still, O'Connor said they tried "very, very hard" to trade up in the draft order the way they did to select point guard Deron Williams five years ago, but found no takers.
Hayward acknowledged he was a bit surprised to hear his name called by the Jazz, but had nothing but effusive praise for the team, its owners and its home city.
He smiled at the thought of playing again with the "shooter's rims" at EnergySolutions Arena, and thanked the Jazz for "seeing something in me" -- even though his hometown Indiana Pacers would have had a shot at him with the No. 10 pick, if the Jazz had passed on him.
"It would have been really cool to play in Indianapolis," Hayward said. "But it will be really cool to play for the Jazz."
Though he shot only 29 percent from three-point range last season, Hayward is viewed primarily as a good outside shooter who does everything well and improves the players around him.
He averaged 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds for the Bulldogs last season, and shot 82.9 percent from the free-throw line.
However, his acquisition called into question the future of veteran Kyle Korver, who plays a similar role for the Jazz and becomes a free agent next month after setting a league record for three-point accuracy last season.
"I would talk about that some other time," O'Connor said.
Hayward weighs only about 210 pounds, and agreed before the draft that improving his size and strength remains a priority -- just as it has been ever since he failed to make the varsity team as a 120-pound freshman at Brownsburg High School in suburban Indianapolis.
"I could shoot it," he recalled, "but I just got bullied."
Hayward doesn't expect that will change, either, at least not right away.
He's ready to be targeted by bigger, grizzled veterans -- "they do that to everybody," he said -- but plans to do whatever the Jazz ask in order to find a place on the team. O'Connor downplayed concerns about Hayward's physique by reminding fans that rail-thin Reggie Miller was "pretty effective in the NBA."
Hayward is expected to travel to Salt Lake City today, and speculated that playing in a smaller market might help him feel more comfortable as he attempts to acclimate.
"It's hard to tell at first ... where you're going to fit in," he said. "For me, I'm going to go out there and play hard and take it from there.
"I know that you have to go out there and step up your game on every single level to get on the court with these guys."
O'Connor and the rest of the Jazz certainly hope he can do it, too.
"We're comfortable with the pick that we made," O'Connor said. "I hear all of the fans and you can appreciate what the fans are saying. They wish and we wish that we had the third or fourth pick; we didn't. We think we got a player that's going to be a really terrific player in the NBA."
Tribune sports writers Ross Siler and Steve Luhm contributed to this story.
Jazz's newest player
The Jazz's Gordon Hayward entered the NBA Draft after his sophomore season at Butler: