The book on Gordon Hayward was written before he ever played in the NBA: good at many things, great at none.
Many predicted that the ninth overall pick of the 2010 draft would be limited by a flat, flashless game. At best, it would take the Jazz rookie years to make a mark in a profession dominated by individuality a league filled with players who carve out a niche and receive a hefty paycheck by perfecting one trait. Hayward was a bland throwback, some said, and the boos that surrounded his selection on draft day were a painful reminder.
Seventy-eight games into his first season, the former Butler standout is creating a name for himself with the same assets that analysts and fans initially used to pick him apart. And after single-handedly carrying Utah to an 86-85 road victory against the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, one of the NBA's most uncompromising critics offered nothing but praise for the 21-year-old who limited him to 6-of-18 shooting.
"I'm very, very fond of him," Los Angeles guard Kobe Bryant said. "He's a very skilled, all-around player. I think he's going to have a very bright future in this league."
The future is now for Hayward.
He has averaged 20.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists during his last two games, shooting 60.7 percent from the field and 57.1 percent behind the 3-point line. But while the sparkling numbers can be attributed to everything from more consistent minutes and an increased role in the Jazz's offense to his own growing confidence, a deeper change has been at the core of Hayward's late-season surge. The rookie originally pegged and drafted as a workman-like small forward has shown the potential to be a dynamic shooting guard.
Fast, strong and accurate, Hayward has been at his best on the wing. He has drilled 3-pointers, blown by defenders off the dribble for layups and dunks, pulled up for mid-range jumpers, and swiftly dished off to teammates as defenses converged. The variation was in full display versus the Lakers, when Hayward rolled off 10 fourth-quarter points to help Utah end an eight-game losing streak.
"I'm definitely most comfortable out on the perimeter," Hayward said. "If that's where coach would want me to play, I would be very comfortable playing that."
Hayward was nervous on media day and struggled from October through February with the weight of expectations and self-imposed pressure. But he has shown glimpses since March of being the type of player a Jazz organization going through an unexpected transition period can build around. Moreover, Hayward has begun to break the mold that general managers and college experts originally fitted him for.
"That's just the way it works when you get drafted. They want to slot you in a position and kind of label this is what you're going to do when you get in the NBA," Hayward said. "I think maybe that works they definitely nail that on some guys. But I feel like a lot of times … you kind of play your way into different positions in the league that you may not even have thought you would play."
Trail Blazers at Jazz
R At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • Thursday, 8:30 p.m.
TV • ROOT Sports, TNT
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Blazers 45-33, Jazz 37-41
Last meeting • Blazers, 100-89 (Dec. 30, 2010)
About the Blazers • Portland is 3-3 in its last six games. … Gerald Wallace is averaging 15.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists since joining the Blazers just before the trade deadline. … Center Marcus Camby (neck) is out.
About the Jazz • Utah is 1-8 in its last nine games. … The Jazz must win their final four contests to prevent a losing season for the second time in 28 years. … Rookie forward Derrick Favors has recorded a double-double in points and rebounds twice in his last four games.
Gordon Hayward file
Position • Small forward. Year • Rookie. Age • 21
Vitals • 6-foot-8, 207 pounds
Stats • 4.7 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 46.5 percent FG, 45.2 percent 3-pt
Last 10 games (average) • 10 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 48.8 percent FG, 28.2 minutes
College • Butler. Draft • No. 9 overall selection in 2010
Last two games (totals) • 41 points on 17-of-28 shooting, 9 rebounds, 9 assists, 4 of 7 3-pointers, 76 minutes
Season • 7 did not plays due to coach's decision, 2 inactives
Combined minutes last five games • 163
Combined minutes during 5-game stretch, Jan. 8-19 • 19
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant on Hayward • "I'm very, very fond of him. He's a very skilled, all-around player. I think he's going to have a very bright future in this league. He reminds me of a more talented Jeff Hornacek. Jeff couldn't put the ball on the floor as well as [Hayward] can."