It’s still special anytime you go home. It’s always special. There’ll be a lot of friends and family there. It’ll be fun. —Gordon Hayward
INDIANAPOLIS — Gordon Hayward is starting to thaw out after being in a cold-shooting polar vortex this winter.
For fans who’ve followed his basketball career since he played at the famous Hinkle Fieldhouse, even at Brownsburg High, Hayward is heating up at an opportune moment.
Just in time to play at home for a day.
Few people are more synonymous with Hoosier State basketball than Hayward, and he’s certain to receive another warm welcome by Indiana fans Sunday night when he visits Bankers Life Fieldhouse for the fourth time with the Utah Jazz.
Hayward doesn’t play for the Pacers, but he’s still an Indiana boy at heart. As such, he’s looking forward to playing in the building where he won a state championship, to competing against his childhood NBA team, and to being among family, friends and faithful fans, many of whom will be wearing No. 20 Jazz jerseys in his honor.
“It’s still special anytime you go home. It’s always special,” Hayward said. “There’ll be a lot of friends and family there. It’ll be fun. The Pacers are really good at home, so it will be a challenge for us.”
Hayward, dealing with an uncertain contract situation and having more NBA responsiblity than ever, knows something about challenges. More often than not, he's overcome them too.
In high school, Hayward's DNA helped him leap one huge hurdle as he hit a growth spurt that turned him from a 5-11 borderline high school hooper to a 6-8 potential-packed athlete. At the time, he also led underdog Brownsburg High to the 2008 Indiana Class 4A state title in dramatic fashion, hitting a legendary buzzer-beater to lift the Bulldogs over Marion High, 40-39.
That championship run is when then-Butler coach Brad Stevens, now the Boston Celtics head coach, realized what kind of a special player was headed his Indianapolis-based program’s way the following fall.
“He really didn’t show that (potential) consistently until his senior year in the high school playoffs,” Stevens said of Hayward. “When March rolled around, he put his team on his back and led them to a state championship.
“You name a historic program in Indiana and they knocked them off on the way there. That was really impressive. That was when we all said there’s more to it than just the potential. From that point on, it was exciting to have a guy that you thought was going to be there. At Butler, we didn’t have anybody like that for a long, long time."
Incidentally, Stevens hosted his home state’s team, the Pacers, on Saturday, giving Indiana back-to-back days to relive Butler memories.
Showing how well he knows Hayward, Stevens was asked what the shooting guard is like when he goes through slumps, something he was still mired in when Boston visited Utah last week.
“He gets a chip on his shoulder and plays really well,” Stevens said. “I hope it’s not tonight.”
It wasn’t. Hayward missed seven of 11 field goal attempts in the Jazz’s 110-98 win over Boston and scored just eight points.
As Stevens hoped, though, Hayward has played really well since that night. After a monthlong stretch that saw him shoot around 30 percent, Hayward has averaged 17.5 points and hit half of his shots in the Jazz’s last two games. He’s also averaged 8.5 rebounds and eight assists in his most impressive consecutive performances since his hot streak in early January before his hip injury.
Hayward, one of only four NBA players to average at least 16 points, five rebounds and five assists this season, said his confidence is picking up “a little bit” with a couple of solid showings in a row.
“It’s still not where I want it, but it’s better,” Hayward, ever a perfectionist, said in Cleveland after shooting 6 for 13 for 18 points with seven boards and seven assists. “You’ve got to take some baby steps when you’re shooting your way out of a slump, so I thought I was good tonight, especially hitting my first couple.”
Actually, Hayward hit three straight 3-pointers in the first quarter of Friday’s 99-79 loss to the Cavs. He finished with four treys for only the second time all season.
“You see the ball go in and the basket gets a little bit bigger for you,” he said. “Things open up.”
On an otherwise dreary night in Ohio, that was a positive for the Jazz.
“Gordon’s going to keep fighting his way out,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “He’s making the right plays.”
“He’s shooting it with confidence. It just don’t go in sometimes,” Jazz forward Richard Jefferson said. “He does so many other things for us.”
From an outsider's perspective, Stevens has been impressed how much growth Hayward was undergone, physically and with his skill set, from the time he led the upstart Bulldogs to the 2010 NCAA national championship game through his fourth season in the NBA.
“He’s so much stronger,” Stevens said. “He’s so much more diverse in his game, both offensively and defensively.”
Stevens recalled how Hayward defended point guards as a freshman at Butler because he wasn’t strong enough to guard guys in the paint. That changed his sophomore season as Hayward bulked up a little bit, allowing him to guard power forwards, a bonus because, Stevens explained, “he was so bright he could help us in our rotations on the back line.”
Added the Celtics coach: “Now I’m watching him guard twos and threes, and in this league those are some of the best players (and) he does so at such a high level.”
Stevens also boasted, like a proud father figure he’s been for Hayward, about what the 23-year-old can do with the ball.
“Offensively,” Stevens said, “he can do so much more than he could do with us.”
While some contend that the Jazz made a mistake by taking Hayward at No. 9 in the 2010 draft to allow the Pacers to snatch star Paul George with the next pick, Stevens makes the argument that his former player was also a steal at that spot in the mid-lottery.
“He was the ninth pick and one of the best players in college basketball, probably an underrated player, probably should’ve been an All-American player and wasn’t,” Stevens said. “Obviously, his game’s grown tremendously. They’ve done a great job here (in Utah) with him and he’s really continued to grow.”
Hayward's near triple-doubles
The Utah Jazz have allowed two opponents to tally their first triple-doubles in the past week — Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving — but Gordon Hayward has been within striking distance of that elusive mark multiple times in February even while in a slump.
Here's a look at how close Hayward has come to notching the first triple-double by a Jazz player since Carlos Boozer had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists at Seattle on Feb. 13, 2008:
Feb. 28 vs. Cavs: 18 points, seven rebounds, seven assists
Feb. 26 vs. Suns: 17 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds
Feb. 21 vs. Blazers: 17 points, seven rebounds, seven assists
Feb. 12 vs. Sixers: 17 points, seven rebounds, seven assists
Feb. 11 vs. Lakers: 15 points, eight rebounds, seven assists
Feb. 8 vs. Heat: nine points, 11 assists, nine rebounds
Hayward's highlights at Bankers Life Fieldhouse
Indiana native Gordon Hayward had a sweet dunk over Paul George during their rookie year, played a decent game his second season and had a very forgettable five-turnover outing in his third visit, but he still hasn't had a breakout game in front of his fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Rookie: three assists, two points, 1-2 shooting
Year 2: 11 points, 4-8 shooting, three rebounds, three assists
Year 3: eight points, 2-6 shooting, five turnovers, two rebounds, one assist