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.)