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Gordon Hayward looks to change opinions in Utah

ANTONIO GONZALEZ
Associated Press Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – Even here, in a gym full of young NBA hopefuls, Gordon Hayward looks a little out of place at first glance.

There aren’t many baby-faced, thin-looking, former high school tennis stars drafted with the ninth overall pick. Then again, there aren’t many rookies who can shoot the way he can.

The debate over Hayward’s potential has put perhaps more pressure on him than any rookie this year.

The 20-year-old who led tiny Butler to the NCAA championship game last season was booed by Utah Jazz fans after the team selected him on draft night. He’s been called too weak and not physically ready for the NBA, and the Bulldogs’ surprising run in the tournament has only created more attention.

Not all of it is positive, either.

“I’m just going out there and playing my game,” Hayward said. “And maybe I’ll change some opinions.”

That could take time.

He showed some promise Tuesday in the final minute of an Orlando summer league game where he didn’t always play like a lottery pick. But he delivered when it counted most.

Hayward’s 3-pointer from the wing with 30.2 seconds remaining gave the Jazz a 74-70 lead over the Orlando Magic’s summer squad. Then he grabbed a defensive rebound, was fouled and headed to the free throw line.

He kept his usual approach – two dribbles, a deep breath, relaxed the shoulders and followed through – for a pair of swishes. Hayward followed with two more later to give Utah a 78-73 win, finishing with 14 points in 19 minutes.

It was a small step in the beginning of a pro career that has hefty expectations.

“I think he got the jitters out,” teammate Othyus Jeffers said.

Hayward’s rise to prominence came at warp speed.

The 6-foot-8, 207-pounder – with the ball-handling skills of a guard in a forward’s body – took Butler to the NCAA title game, losing to Duke after a half-court heave missed at the buzzer. Then he decided to leave after his sophomore season.

While the suburban Indianapolis native is beloved around most of the Hoosier State, that sentiment isn’t shared everywhere.

Utah general manager Kevin O’Connor was berated with boos and thumbs-down gestures on draft night when he stepped to the podium after a season ticket-holder announced Hayward’s pick. The displeasure only grew after O’Connor suggested fans shouldn’t rush to judgment.

Hayward clearly wasn’t the popular choice fans thought could take Utah from a playoff team to one that could contend in the Western Conference.

“For me, it was kind of an after thought,” Hayward said of the boos. “I was excited about getting drafted. The organization told me they were excited about drafting me. But I think it’s a little bit of motivation.”

His coaches don’t believe that pressure has effected Hayward.

Hayward has, however, been hesitant to shine through two summer league games. He has wandered around the perimeter aimlessly at times, struggled to create his own shot and become a defensive liability.

But when he has found the ball, he hasn’t missed much.

“He’s trying to not make a mistake instead of just going out there and playing,” said Jazz assistant and summer league head coach Tyrone Corbin. “That’s typical for a young guy. But with his talent level, I think he’ll pick it up.”

The Jazz don’t consider Hayward a leftover by any means.

He’s a sharpshooter, has a knack for passing and has been trying to add muscle to his frail frame. His biggest challenge will likely be adjusting to the physical play and speed of the NBA.

And, of course, keeping expectations tame.

“People have criticized my strength my whole life, in high school, college and now,” Hayward said. “But what I give up in some regards, I make up with other things, like quickness, anticipation, a first step.

“I like my chances.”