Hayward’s star on rise

SALT LAKE CITY – He’s an athletic small forward trying to rebound from a late-season injury and lead his team to a West Regional title before perhaps getting taken in the first round of this summer’s NBA draft.

And, no, we’re not talking about Syracuse’s Wes Johnson.

Butler sophomore Gordon Hayward lacks the name recognition of Johnson, a likely lottery pick if he chooses to turn pro after the season. But their games are more similar than you might think.

Gordon Hayward has grown into one of the nation's most dynamic forwards.
(Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images)

If Hayward outplays Johnson when Butler (30-4) faces top-seeded Syracuse (30-4) in a West Regional semifinal Thursday at EnergySolutions Arena, he could solidify his status as a potential first-round pick whenever he chooses to enter the draft.

“It’s something I’ve dreamed of my whole life,” Hayward said, “but I never thought I’d see myself at one point right there.”

Don’t consider that a case of false modesty. Hayward was only 5 feet 11 as a ninth-grader and had no reason to believe he’d develop into an NBA-sized player. As a high school sophomore, he feared his life-long dream already was slipping out of reach.

“My whole life, basketball was always my love,” Hayward said. “I wanted to play that my whole life. Being realistic, as a sophomore in high school, I thought I wouldn’t be able to play basketball in college, so I tried to focus a little more on tennis.”

But Hayward grew about 8 inches at Brownsburg (Ind.) High School and had a number of Division I basketball offers by the time he graduated. Hayward, who now is 6-9, has Butler bordering on unfamiliar territory.

Although this marks Butler’s third Sweet 16 appearance in the past eight seasons, the Bulldogs never have reached the Elite Eight. Two more wins would advance the fifth-seeded Bulldogs to the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium, about five miles from Butler’s campus.

“This is what you play for,” Hayward said. “This is what you’ve dreamed about your whole life. I think every player in the country wants to be right here at this moment. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Hayward could become the first Butler player to reach the NBA in more than 50 years. Basketballreference.com shows that Butler hasn’t sent anyone to the NBA since Ralph “Buckshot” O’Brien played for the Indianapolis Olympians and the Baltimore Bullets from 1951-53. The closest Butler has come since was when Billy Shepherd played for the ABA’s Virginia Squires, San Diego Conquistadors and Memphis Sounds from 1972-75.

Syracuse has produced 45 draft picks – including 16 first-round selections – since Butler last had anyone in the NBA.

Hayward figures to end that drought. A forward who can handle the ball and shoot the 3-pointer, Hayward has the type of game built for the NBA. He averages 15.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game to lead Butler in both categories.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim knows about Hayward’s potential. He chaired the committee that selected Hayward and Butler guard Shelvin Mack to the U.S. team that won the gold medal last summer at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand. Hayward made the all-tournament team.

“I was as impressed with him as anybody that we’ve had with USA Basketball in the last eight years that I’ve been involved with that, working with college kids,” Boeheim said. “He’s a great player.”

The Web site draftexpress.com has Johnson getting taken eighth and Hayward 26th in its latest 2010 mock draft. Nbadraft.net projects Johnson as the third overall pick in 2010 and Hayward as the 30th overall selection in 2011.

Hayward hasn’t decided whether to enter the draft or return to school for his junior year.

Butler wants to make its way back home for the Final Four.
(Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images)

“I honestly don’t know right now,” he said. “After the season, I will sit down with my father and Coach [Brad] Stevens and talk about that, but right now it’s just all Butler.”

Hayward isn’t having the type of postseason that would boost his pro stock, at least not yet. Back spasms caused Hayward to miss a Horizon League tournament game against Valparaiso. He is 1-for-13 from 3-point range in the four games since his return and was 6-for-21 overall in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. His 3-point shooting accuracy has slipped from 44.8 percent last season to 28.2 percent this season.

Teammates point out that Hayward helps Butler win even when he isn’t shooting well.

“He’s tough,” sophomore guard Ronald Nored said. “He’s doing a good job of getting to the rim. He’s doing a good job of getting to the free-throw line. He’s important defensively for us. He’s going to be real important [Thursday] for us.

“Whether his shots are going in or not, he still attracts people, which is helping other guys get going. That’s just as important as him knocking down shots.”

Even so, Hayward’s slump could be bad news for Butler, particularly since Johnson has gotten over his own late-season funk now that his bruised right hand has healed. Johnson had 31 points and 14 rebounds Sunday in an 87-65 second-round blowout of Gonzaga. Hayward likely needs to play as well as Johnson for Butler to have any shot at an upset.

Hayward says his back isn’t bothering him anymore and thinks his recent problems are more mental than physical.

“I think it’s just thinking about it too much, just being in a slump,” Hayward said. “I definitely put in some extra shots this past week, and I’m ready to go.”

Beating Syracuse is going to require some clutch plays by Butler, and Hayward has demonstrated a knack for just that.

He capped his high school career by making a game-winning shot at the buzzer to give Brownsburg a 40-39 victory over Marion in the 2008 Class 4A state championship game. He made two free throws with six-tenths of a second remaining in Butler’s 69-67 victory over UCLA on Nov. 27. Three weeks later, Hayward grabbed a loose ball in the final seconds and sank the game-winning layup in a triumph over Xavier. He made one of the signature plays of the tournament Saturday when he tipped away a pass to prevent Murray State from attempting a final shot in Butler’s 54-52 second-round triumph.

“Great basketball players make plays,” Stevens said. “Sometimes when your shot doesn’t go down, you’ve got to find other ways to make plays. He’s a great basketball player who’s won games different ways. He’s gotten to the line twice in the last second of a game this year, against UCLA and at Detroit, to help us win the game. He just figures out different ways to do it.

“He’s a really good basketball player. We’re not concerned about his shot. He’s likely to go off at any time.”

Nored believes that moment has arrived.

“This is his time,” he said. “This is the big stage, and he’s stepped up on the biggest stages. When he played for the U.S. 19 team, he was on the all-tournament team as one of the top five players. When we played big teams, he’s the one that’s played the best. His time’s coming. We’re excited. When he’s going, it’s tough to play against us.”

A huge performance Thursday just might catapult Hayward to an even bigger stage next season.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.
Updated Wednesday, Mar 24, 2010