Hayward packs on a little muscle, some confidence

Dec 10 2011 - 10:27pm

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(Colin E Braley/The Associated Press)
Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward talks on his cell phone next to a photo backdrop before his team's first NBA basketball training camp workout in Salt Lake City, Friday, Dec. 9 2011.
(Colin E Braley/The Associated Press)
Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward talks on his cell phone next to a photo backdrop before his team's first NBA basketball training camp workout in Salt Lake City, Friday, Dec. 9 2011.

Last December, Gordon Hayward's head was spinning. A month into his rookie season, the Utah Jazz's 2010 first-round draft pick was so lost in the all-out grind of the NBA, you halfway expected to see his face on the back of a milk carton.

Although it's obviously still very early in the process, this season should be better for the 21-year-old.

After a long summer and the NBA lockout, Hayward showed up for the start of Jazz training camp looking visibly different. We're not talking Karl Malone-type muscles here, but the skinny kid from Butler University walked into the Zions Bank Basketball Center looking a bit thicker and with more definition in his arms, back and shoulders.

"I just wanted to hit the weights really hard," he said. "Strength is a big component in this league. A lot of guys are older and stronger and being on balance is really important."

He's right, of course. Any Jazz fan who watched him play last season surely saw his potential as a 6-foot-9 shooter who, under the right conditions, can spread defenses and create bad matchups for opposing wings. But two things were apparent: No. 1, he lacked confidence and, No. 2, he lacked strength.

It's not unreasonable to think the two were related. After all, with strength comes confidence and vice versa.

It took him a while to develop that confidence last season, but when he finally did he left teammates, coaches and fans wanting more. In the final game of the season he scored 34 points on the Denver Nuggets, hitting 12-of-17 shots -- 5-for-6 from behind the 3-point arc -- for 34 points.

The memory of that stuck with everyone associated with the Jazz, even those fans who previously had begun to wonder if Hayward might become some sort of a draft bust.

Something tells me Hayward remembered it, too.

Something tells me the memory of that effort helped push him to work out even harder during his time away from the NBA.

"I took that into the off season," he said. "I tried to use it (to build) confidence and use it for motivation to continue this year."

Imagine being Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin. He was delighted to see Hayward have that great game to end last season but in the months to come he could have no contact with Hayward or any other player.

He had to hope the talented youngster would motivate himself to improve and later admitted he really had no reason to believe he wouldn't. Still, it had to have been gratifying to see Hayward walk into camp on Friday packing more muscle -- and confidence -- than ever before.

"He's not wondering if he belongs, he knows he can play in this league now," Corbin said.

A former player himself, Corbin said he understood what Hayward was going through last season.

"It's a huge, huge adjustment," he said. "You're used to being 'the guy' and you're used to not having to think because you're in your comfort zone. He was 'the guy' in college, so everything ran through him. Now (as a rookie) not only doesn't it run through you, you're not even part of it in most cases."

To make matters worse, when Hayward did get a chance to be on the floor he got pushed around and knocked out of his comfort zone. It had to have been a rude awakening and certainly an eye-opening experience.

Rare is the NBA rookie who doesn't question himself. Hayward may yet become a rare talent, but obviously his rookie experience was not atypical.

Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor was booed the night the team drafted Hayward with the No. 9 overall pick. He has often joked about it, but it's quite obvious he didn't like the experience. But through all the ups and downs of last season, O'Connor never stopped believing in him and it doesn't appear that'll change any time soon.

Now with a full season under his belt, added size and strength, the hope is Hayward will continue to believe in himself.

Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner's sports columnist. He also covers the Utah Jazz and the NBA. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at jburton@standard.net. He tweets at http://twitter.com/jmb247

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