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A CAREER BACKUP FOUND HIS PURPOSE WITH THE LEAGUE-BEST WARRIORS

In SB Nation on April 15, 2015 at 11:24 am
Photo courtesy of Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Photo courtesy of Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Marreese “Mo” Speights wasn’t a star. He wasn’t a starter. He wasn’t mentioned for more than a couple sentences in opponents’ scouting reports, either. For the first month and a half of his freshman season at Florida, Speights served as a punching bag for a bunch of upperclassmen bangers named Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Chris Richard.

The two eventual NBA lottery picks and second-round selection dunked on Speights daily, posting him up and out-hustling him during practice. But Speights didn’t sulk. He sought the trio out for advice and challenged them during drills. “Mo didn’t care who he guarded,” Richard said. “He took on everybody.”

Embracing his backup role for the national-champion Gators, Speights seized the moment no matter how fleeting. He ripped down six boards in five minutes against Arkansas in the title game of the SEC Tournament and poured in 16 points in 10 minutes against Jackson State in the NCAA first round.

“He was always ready,” said Rockets guard Corey Brewer, a former Florida teammate. “He came off the bench and he gave us a spark. He worked his butt off, that was the main thing. He got better and better each day.”

After Horford, Noah and Richard departed for the NBA, Speights was thrust into the spotlight for the Gators the following season. His coaches relished his offensive gifts—the way his soft touch and size could stretch a defense—but they wanted more defensive intensity and competitive drive. Coach Billy Donovan demanded more out of Speights toward the end of the season.

“I think (Donovan) just felt this guy really needs to be pushed to his limit and beyond, more than he even thinks he can give,” said former Florida assistant Larry Shyatt, who is now the head coach at Wyoming. “You’d leave practice and Mo would be laying on the floor exhausted.”

“Mo’s attitude was phenomenal,” Shyatt added. “He kept fighting through it.”

Echoes Donnie Jones, another former assistant, who is the head coach at the University of Central Florida, “He knew everything was about learning. I think that’s the theme of why he’s been able to grow as a player. He’s always about, ‘How can I get better?'” (READ MORE.)

GORDON HAYWARD IS BECOMING A FRANCHISE PLAYER

In SB Nation on January 15, 2015 at 11:42 am
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Gordon Hayward’s body ached.

There was the smack of Carmelo Anthony’s shoulder on the block, pump-faking him into the air for the and-one. There was the sting of getting popped in the eye by Pablo Prigioni on a drive. There were the elbows that swung at his gut when he darted into the key.

Though an undeterred Hayward responded with a season-high 33 points against the Knicks, these are the nightly hits that come with being Utah’s go-to player. These are also the non-calls that come with being a budding No. 1 option that has yet to garner the respect.

“I’m kind of more of an offensive focus for other teams,” Hayward said prior to Utah’s Dec. 29 game against the Clippers. “It’s been a process learning how to handle that.”

Heavier than the physical contact in the lane, though, is the burden of leading the rebuilding Jazz up the ladder in the stacked West. Hayward is blossoming with career-high averages, but is the fifth-year swingman finally ready to seize the franchise’s reins?

***

Standing 5’11 and 155 pounds of skin and bones, Hayward wasn’t his team’s first option as a freshman at Indiana’s Brownsburg High School. He wasn’t the second, third or fourth option, either.

Instead he zealously played StarCraft video games. He sat with his parents and twin sister rather than his teammates at varsity football games. He smoked his teammates at ping pong, foosball and pool.

But on the court? No one expected much.

“I didn’t even notice him until he started raining threes on us,” said Grantland’s Mark Titus, a former high-school teammate. “Just a tiny, tiny dude who could shoot.”

He was more fit for tennis than hoops. With his slight frame and superb agility, Hayward spent hours training with a private tennis coach in hopes of succeeding long-term in that sport. But a sudden growth spurt altered his plans, skyrocketing him to 6’8 and 185 pounds by his senior year. The combination of Hayward’s ball-handling, outside shooting and athleticism allowed him to dominate along the perimeter and in the post, leading Brownsburg to the state title.

He also morphed into one of the top tennis players in Indiana, reaching the state singles quarterfinals. But as college basketball coaches began to watch him play, it became clear Hayward’s future lied on the hardwood.

“If he played tennis year round, he had a strong chance of probably playing professional tennis,” former Brownsburg tennis coach Eric Esterline said.

Still, Hayward wasn’t a five-star basketball recruit and garnered three scholarship offers before deciding on Butler. Not one to seek attention, he made the right plays at the right times, quietly coming into his own as a lead-by-example kind of player for Brad Stevens’ club.

“Whether it was him getting a big-time block, a steal against Murray State, he wasn’t somebody who needed to say a whole lot,” former Butler teammate Willie Veasley said. “Just somebody who went on the court and did what coach asked for when we needed it.”

He wasn’t the one anyone imagined would lead a Cinderella Butler team all the way to the title game against Duke in 2010. But there Hayward found himself, an unlikely star thrust into the ring with the highest of stakes. A few years before, he almost traded in his high-tops for a racquet. On that night, his half-court hurl at the buzzer almost broke the Blue Devils and almost made him an instant legend. (READ MORE.)

KEMBA WALKER IS READY TO PROVE DOUBTERS WRONG, AGAIN

In SB Nation on November 20, 2014 at 11:25 am
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Emanuel “Book” Richardson’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing.

Why would you let Kemba Walker go to UConn? He’s too small. He’s never going to play.

Richardson, Walker’s former AAU coach with the New York Gauchos, had similar reservations. When he first heard Walker wanted to be a Husky, he laughed. UConn hadn’t even shown any interest and Walker was projected to be a mid-major player.

“I don’t think you’re good enough to play there yet,” Richardson told the Rice High School point guard, prodding him to think more realistically about his future. “There’s not a lot of late bloomers that are six foot.”

But reality wasn’t a message the kid with sky-high dreams wanted to hear, even if scouting reports sent him back down to earth. He could make shots when needed — but could he become a consistent shooter? He could dazzle — but could he defend? His crossovers could leave defenders’ legs twisted in ways they shouldn’t — but could he command a team?

Walker heard all of the questions. He longed for a chance to give answers.

“He took everything personal,” said Richardson, now an assistant coach at Arizona. “Religiously, he was always in the Gauchos gym. He never allowed himself to be complacent with just being good. He always wanted to be great.”

***

It’s a hot morning in Los Angeles in early November, almost reaching the 80s before noon. The Hornets are shooting around in STAPLES Center, preparing for the Lakers later that night.

Walker is in a light mood, knocking down shots, inching closer, stepping back, finding his rhythm.

In a larger sense, the fourth-year pro is trying to find his stride in a league saturated with point guards. He’s years removed from his prep days, let alone leading UConn to a national championship in 2011. Yet those same questions about his outside shooting and defense still remain.

This is a pivotal season for Walker, whose four-year, $48 million contract extension secured him as a key piece in the franchise’s future. Will he grow into an elite point guard or will he not rise to the occasion? This is a critical year for the Hornets, too. Last season’s first-round playoff appearance set the bar high for this season. Will they take the next step in winning a series or crack amid the hype?

Charlotte’s success is tied to Walker’s and Walker’s to Charlotte’s. Both have potential. Both have something to prove. And both know their fates are intertwined.

“I just want to win,” Walker said while sitting courtside after shootaround. “Of course I can say, ‘Oh, I want to be an All-Star’ and things like that. But in order to do all those things, you have to win.” (READ MORE.)

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