SALT LAKE CITY -- Doc Rivers is sweet on Gordon Hayward, athletically speaking.
Before a Jazz-Clippers preseason game last week in Los Angeles, Rivers told reporters he has "a man crush" on Utah's fourth-year swingman.
"He's really good," Rivers added.
Rivers' comments blew up on the Internet, presumably due their humorous juxtaposition. After all, it's not every day an NBA coach -- especially one with Rivers' feisty composition -- professes feelings normally reserved for moon-eyed schoolgirls staring at pictures of Justin Bieber.
But as odd as Rivers' feelings may seem, fans of the Utah Jazz understand the attraction, athletically speaking of course.
With no more Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap or Mo Williams on the roster, the Jazz are now Hayward's team. For better or worse, he has become the face of the franchise as it moves into a new and potentially exciting era.
When the Jazz tip off the 2013-14 season tonight against Oklahoma City at EnergySolutions Arena, Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks will no longer be bit players, they'll have starring roles. The Jazz aren't expected to compete for the postseason. Rather, they're undergoing a transition from an older team fighting for one of the Western Conference's final playoff spots to a younger team about to take its lumps.
And Hayward, 23, has been asked to lead them.
"Everybody's telling me I'm a veteran," he said recently. "It definitely doesn't feel like that, 23 is still pretty young. But leadership has no age, shows no age. I'm ready."
Five years ago he was still in high school; today, he's Utah's main man. That's an amazing leap, no doubt. But with that status comes responsibility and expectation, both of which Hayward says he understands.
Away from the floor Hayward must deal with some high-profile challenges, most notably conducting himself with the utmost professionalism while being a big fish in a rather small pond. Additionally, he now must deal with the ongoing contract negotiations between his representatives and Utah's front office personnel.
The deadline for a contract extension is rapidly approaching -- 9:59 p.m. on Thursday -- at which point the Jazz and Hayward either come to an agreement or the Indiana native becomes a restricted free agent next summer.
"I would love to be here, that would be great," Hayward said Monday morning, shortly after teammate Derrick Favors signed his own four-year, $47.7 million extension.
"It's one of those things where, I'd love to be in Utah, if that's what happens," he added. "And hopefully it will but that's why I hired an agent, to work those things out for me so I don't have to think about it."
On the court, Hayward will face a different set of challenges, chief among them becoming the focal point for opposing defenses.
Through the first three years of his career his scoring average climbed from 5.4 points a game as a rookie, to 11.8 per during the 2011-12 season to 14.1 last season. That steady improvement was enhanced by having veterans like Jefferson, Millsap and Williams on center stage. This season, he'll be the leading man and opponents will be prepared to test him.
Hayward acknowledges the new dynamic and shows no inclination to back down from it.
"I don't think it's really a concern, it's just getting used to it," he said, breaking it down to its simplest form. "If you're open, shoot it. If you're not, pass."
Although he professes it in a different way, Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin, like Rivers, appreciates Hayward's assets. But he admits he'd like to see him become less of a sweetheart and more of a playboy, athletically speaking.
"He's not a selfish player, he wants to make the right play for his teammates," he said. "So, at times when the focus is on him -- and we need him to make plays for himself and for his teammates -- I think he makes up his mind he's going to pass (rather than) attack and see what happens.
"That's a growing process. I think he will get better because we will put the ball in his hands down the stretch."
Contact reporter Jim Burton at 801-625-4265, firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jmb247.