January 15, 2015, published on SBNation.com
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 before 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.
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 made him an instant legend.
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.
It’s three days before the New Year and the Jazz are warming up against the Clippers in Los Angeles. Hayward shoots jumper after jumper, one of the last Jazz players to return to the locker room while his teammates ate, joked around, rode the bike and listened to music.
This is mostly how Hayward spent the offseason: shooting by himself from every spot on the floor until his mind could erase the percentages that haunted him. Forty-one percent from the field. Thirty percent from three-point range. Both were career-lows, down from 43 and 41 percent the previous season.
Both were the effect of having to shoulder the entire scoring load instead of leaning on veterans Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. The court was still 94 by 50. The rim was still 10-feet high. But the spots he used to weave through to the cup? Closed up. The daylight he used to enjoy on the perimeter? Not there. The teammates he depended on for easy buckets? Gone to other teams.
Utah still matched the Hornets’ four-year, $63 million offer to keep Hayward, but the move was mocked: Unbelievable. Nowhere near a max player. Not ready to lead a franchise.
Hayward zoned out the talk, bulking up in the weight room at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis all summer. He lifted weights five days a week, completing a near two-hour strength, conditioning and speed workout.
As a result, he added five to seven pounds of muscle by the start of training camp, weighing in at 230 pounds (up from 220 the previous season).
“He got a lot stronger, a lot more confident than last year,” Jazz teammate Derrick Favors said. “I think the strength has helped him out a lot.”
He almost landed a spot on Team USA, among the final cuts to the FIBA World Cup roster. Next to him were guys who were No. 1 options on their own teams. Guys he could measure himself against. Guys who challenged him.
Maybe it was all of those off-season jumpers. Maybe it was the arrival of Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s motion offense. Or maybe it was being humbled by last season’s failures.
In any case, Hayward is now playing the most efficient ball of his career. He’s averaging a career-high 19 points, five rebounds and four assists a night while shooting 45 percent from the field and 37 percent from three. He’s scored 25 or more eight times, including four 30-plus games.
But it’s not just his shooting, the way he twists in the air for off-balance jumpers or the way he bobs up and down for a hesitation move to beat his defender to the basket.
It’s his passing out of pick-and-roll situations that has made his teammates better. Hayward’s size allows him to see over the defense and instantly whip a thread-the-needle bounce pass to his roller.
“He’s unique in that regard,” Snyder said. “There’s less really good [small forwards] that play pick-and-roll as there are point guards. So to have him at that position, oftentimes he’s got an advantage.”
Hayward’s versatility is most apparent on defense, as his arms extend like tentacles in the passing lane, snagging the ball out of the air for the steal. Opponents still aren’t safe on the fast break with Hayward trailing; not even LeBron James, who fell victim to a Hayward chase-down block earlier this season.
“He makes energy plays,” said Utah rookie Rodney Hood. “Not all the star players do that.”
Losing was not in his bones. Not as a senior when his high school state championship team finished 22-5. Not when national runner-up Butler finished 33-5 in 2010.
And not in practice, either. Whether it was a five-on-five scrimmage or a defensive drill that required a certain number of stops, there was always a winner and a loser to Hayward, and he couldn’t be the latter.
“When the second team or the scout team would play really well and beat the first team, it drove him crazy,” said former Butler assistant coach Matthew Graves, now head coach at South Alabama. “He absolutely hated to lose.”
Cue the Jazz, who are 13th in the Western Conference with a 13-26 record. Plagued by injuries, first-half deficits and poor shooting, the Jazz are also one of the NBA’s youngest teams. What’s more, Hayward is expected to lead the group at 24, when he too is still developing.
“I haven’t experienced everything,” Hayward said. “I think that’s what makes it more difficult for us, is that our leaders are still young, still trying to work things out for themselves.”
But as a max-contract player, Hayward is held to a higher standard. Those players are viewed as superheroes who have the power to melt the numbers on the scoreboard into a victorious outcome, regardless of circumstance.
Hayward has indeed willed his team to victory at times this year, like nailing a buzzer-beater step-back jumper over the Cavs or scoring 11 of his 26 points in the final four minutes to beat the Timberwolves by six.
But other times he’s less aggressive in close games, waiting for something to happen rather than making something happen.
In a 119-111 loss to the Pelicans where the Jazz gave up 41 points in the fourth quarter, Hayward scored just two points in the period. And in the fourth quarter of a 101-97 loss to the Clippers, he was held scoreless with two attempts, often deferring to teammates.
“For Gordon to take that next step, he has to learn to be selfish in certain situations,” said former Jazz teammate Earl Watson, who calls himself Hayward’s big brother.
“Gordon’s going to go out there and he’s going to make his teammates better, which is what every player should do,” Watson said. “But it comes to a point during the game where it’s critical and he has to take over and be aggressive offensively and kind of be selfish.”
The Jazz are up by three against the Grizzlies on the road with less than three minutes to go in the back-and-forth game.
Hounded by three Memphis players, Hayward misses a runner, but doesn’t pout. Mike Conley rebounds the ball and jets the other way. Hayward sprints back as if he’s the one being chased, beating everyone down.
As Conley tosses up a layup, Hayward stretches his arms to the sky and smacks the ball down to the ground, preventing the easy bucket. The Jazz eventually win by six.
Hayward could have stayed back and watched two points slip away, tally another loss in the books.
But he didn’t. The spotlight enveloped him, and this time, he embraced its glow.