SALT LAKE CITY — It's unlikely Blue III will make the trip to Utah, but Butler Nation and the Bulldogs' pudgy mascot will have a lot of interest in Monday night's NBA game at EnergySolutions Arena.
After all, two of the Indianapolis-based college's most highly regarded products will be squaring off.
The reunion comes at an interesting time for Gordon Hayward, the 2010 NCAA poster child and the Utah Jazz's leading scorer, and Brad Stevens, his old coach who led Butler to two championship games before bolting for Boston this season.
Stevens, one of the calmest coaches at any level, received his first technical foul and was simultaneously ejected from the Boston Celtics' 105-98 loss Saturday to the Sacramento Kings at Sleep Train Arena.
That same night, Hayward had one of his quietest (read: worst) games since being thrust in a leadership role with Utah during this rebuilding season. The starting shooting guard had two blocks and two steals early on, but missed 8 of 10 shots, scored just five points, and totaled zero rebounds and assists as the Jazz got clobbered 121-104 at home to Minnesota.
Hayward, a team captain, hurried out of the locker room much quicker than usual after the Jazz dropped their third straight game. He did post a short message via Twitter on Sunday afternoon: "Livin in the present...next game."
It certainly would bode well for him to look forward instead of backward after averaging only 10.9 points on 30.4 percent shooting the past 12 games.
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said he talked to Hayward a couple of days ago about his ongoing slump, which had a slight reprieve Friday when he scored 17 on 5-of-11 shooting but continued again Saturday. The coach admitted Hayward has “pressed a little bit” on some shots.
“We’re looking for him to get back in the flow he was on earlier of making shots at the frequency he was,” Corbin said. “He’s struggled a little bit of late making shots, but he does other things that help us have a chance to win games.”
Corbin wants teammates to help create easier looks for Hayward “to be able to get his rhythm back.” A good way to do that, Corbin added, is to be more aggressive in getting attempts at the basket and trying to get to the free-throw line.
"He’s a great player for us and we really need him," Jazz guard Diante Garrett said. "I’m pretty sure he's going to get out of this slump."
While the Jazz try to move forward from the extended slump, Hayward's name continues to be tied to his Butler past because of Stevens.
Since Celtics president Danny Ainge hired Hayward's collegiate mentor in July, it's been speculated and surmised that the fourth-year NBA player is destined to reunite with Stevens in the pros.
Although it had no traction, the chatter resurfaced leading up to the trade deadline this past Thursday.
The rumor mill will continue to churn for the next few months in advance of the free agency period when Hayward becomes a restricted free agent.
Some believe Stevens, Ainge et al. are so enamored with the versatile swingman that they'll throw a big enough contract at Hayward that it'll prove hard for the Jazz to match.
That will be one of the things to watch as this important offseason unfolds for Utah (19-36) and Boston (19-38), who are both trying to revamp their franchises' foundations.
One thing's for certain: Stevens respects the heck out of Hayward as a person and a player. And vice versa.
"He's a lot better than when I coached him. Man, and he was good when I coached him," Stevens said after winning his first NBA game at the expense of Hayward and the Jazz early this season. "I thought he was the best player in college at the time, and man has he improved. I'm proud of him."
Hayward had 28 points, nine rebounds and five assists in the Jazz’s 97-87 loss back on Nov. 6 in Boston when he faced Stevens as an opponent for the first time since their successful Butler run from 2008-10.
"You watch the film and in a lot of ways I’m a proud coach because you’re watching and you’re really enjoying watching him," Stevens said at the time. "Then you get sick to your stomach because you’ve got to play against him."
Before Round 1, Hayward said it'd be "weird" to see his old coach leading the green team instead of the Butler blue and to be on the opposite side of the court in this league. But he's not surprised.
“I could see him at the next level,” Hayward said. “We had always discussed a lot of things about the NBA. He’s here now and I’m happy for it.”
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