Jazz forward Gordon Hayward relies on a three-word personal mantra: improve every day.
It helped him carry Butler to the 2010 NCAA men’s championship game. It guided him to the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft and a strong finish during his rookie season with Utah. And after being one of 18 first- and second-year players selected Wednesday to the Rising Stars Challenge, Hayward’s focus on constantly fine-tuning his attack continues to make a major difference in his NBA development.
“He’s gotten better every game out, man,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said Tuesday, prior to Utah’s 104-99 loss at Indiana. “He’s a kid that’s understanding how he can get to what he want[s] to get to in a game.”
The 18th annual rookie-sophomore contest will be held Feb. 24 in Orlando, Fla. It’s part of a three-day buildup toward the 2012 NBA All-Star Game, which takes place Feb. 26 at the Amway Center in Orlando.
Hayward was the lone Jazz player selected to the Challenge, and the first since Paul Millsap and Ronnie Brewer were chosen in 2008.
Utah second-year forward Derrick Favors and two Jazz rookies — center Enes Kanter, guard Alec Burks — were eligible but did not make the cut.
The Challenge will feature a new format this year. Instead of separating rookies and sophomores into two teams, TNT analysts Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal will draft players in an open-pool format Feb. 16.
Hayward, 21, ranks fourth on the Jazz in average points (9.8), while being third in assists (3.3) and minutes (28:19). He’s averaging 13 points on 52.3 percent shooting during his last five games.
While Hayward still defers too often and sometimes disappears from the team’s offense, his all-around game has continued to improve and he’s at times been Utah’s best wing player during the 2011-12 season. A seven-point explosion during the third quarter of Utah’s loss to Indiana left Jazz guard Raja Bell referring to “G-Man” as a “superhero.”
“His confidence and his strength from his body is getting better and he’s feeling more comfortable with that,” Corbin said. “He’s learning how to hit guys when he need[s] to him ’em and learning how to receive blows when he need[s] to.”
The Jazz will sign forward DeMarre Carroll, a 6-foot-8 forward who was the 27th pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
Carroll attended college at Missouri and played 71 games for the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2009-10 NBA season. He averaged 2.9 points and 2.1 rebounds. Most recently, Carroll played for the Denver Nuggets.
Carroll, 25, will be the Jazz’s 14th player under contract. Teams can carry as many as 15 players.
Millsap is Utah’s best shot to make the 2012 All-Star team. Reserves will be announced 5 p.m. Thursday on TNT, with seven players from each conference joining 10 starters that were chosen last Thursday.
Millsap ranks second on the Jazz in average points (16.5), while being first in rebounds (9.7), steals (1.4) and field-goal percentage (52.3).
However, the Western Conference is stacked at power forward, with Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol all having strong years.
Jazz center Al Jefferson is also a viable candidate. He’s averaging team-highs in points (18.5), blocks (1.6) and minutes (33:01), and ranks second in rebounds (8.9)
It’s been three seasons since Utah hasn’t had a player make the All-Star team. Former guard Deron Williams was selected during 2010 and 2011.
Millsap and Jefferson have never been chosen.