Had he not opted to leave school early for the NBA, Gordon Hayward potentially could have kept busy Sunday preparing to play for Butler in Monday night's NCAA title game against UConn. Instead, he spent the day playing for a lottery-bound Utah Jazz team that lost for the eighth straight time.
And while he doesn't for a moment regret leaving after his sophomore season the Butler team he led to last season's Final Four, Hayward does admit to challenging times these days.
"It's been tough," he said after Sunday's defeat at Sacramento, "especially because I hate losing, and I've never been on a losing team."
Hayward's saving grace is that while the Jazz have been in a downward spiral the past two weeks, his own game is on a high.
He made his 13th start of the season Sunday, and not just because fellow wing players Raja Bell and Andrei Kirilenko are out and injured. His 19 points against the Kings are the most he's had so far in the NBA, one more than against Minnesota on March 11, and they came on a day he shot an efficient 8-for-14 from the field, including 2-for-3 from three-point range. The rookie swingman even played a team-high 41 minutes in Sacramento, marking the third time in his last five games he has logged 37 or more and the sixth time in his last seven with 25-plus.
"He's versatile, he can handle the ball some in the open court," said Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin, who even had Hayward initiating the offense for short stints Sunday. "I think he can defend guys on the perimeter, he's not a bad post defender, and I like his basketball IQ."
Hayward, who just recently turned 21 years old, also is smart enough to understand why his game in the rise.
"Confidence is definitely up the highest it's been," he said. "I think just being more comfortable out there, getting more minutes, has helped me out a lot, being more aggressive."
But he knows there is plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to striking an ideal balance between shoot-first and pass-first mentalities. It's something he can work on in the Jazz's five games that remain, including the next, on the road Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Lakers.
"There are times where definitely I should shoot instead of pass, or try to make a play," said Hayward, who has scored in double-figures only 11 times this season. "But I think it's getting better with just being more comfortable out there, and hopefully it will continue to get better.
"I think the mindset I've had all year, and I think it's especially important now (that the Jazz are eliminated from playoff contention), is you go out there to be a better player, try to improve, every time you step on the court."
KINGS 106, JAZZ 97: One game after being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, Utah fell Sunday at Sacramento and failed in its bid to sweep its four-game season series with the Kings. It was the eight straight loss overall and fifth in a row on the road for the Jazz, who trailed by as many as 21 with just more than five minutes left in the first half. Utah (36-41) was both out-rebounded by a Kings team that also shot 51.9 percent from the field. Coach Tyrone Corbin called his club's defense "terrible," especially a transition defense that allowed Sacramento 33 fastbreak points. The Jazz did get back to within five in the third quarter, but 24-point game-high scorer Tyreke Evans gave the Kings some separation by hitting a three-pointer with just under eight minutes remaining in the period. Utah, which got a team-high 21 points from Paul Millsap, couldn't get any closer than within nine in the fourth quarter.
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