Butler's Hayward creates buzz at 19-and-under national team trials
Gordon Hayward's made a name for himself at the world championship team trials
He dominated an early scrimmage with stellar long-range shooting and versatility
He could become Butler's first player to make the NBA since 1953
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Butler's Gordon Hayward, who was selected for USA Basketball's 19-and-under national team Thursday, was first featured in the sporting press four years ago. A story in a regional section of the Indianapolis Star profiled Gordon and his twin sister, Heather, who were playing mixed doubles in the Indiana State Open. They were precocious prep tennis stars. She had already played No. 1 singles as a freshman at Brownsburg High; he played No. 1 doubles then, and No. 1 singles the next year. The paper said the twins planned on going to Purdue, their parents' alma mater.
Their plans were altered by a growth spurt. Gordon went from 5-foot-11 as a freshman to 6-7 as a junior, and 6-8 as a senior. His first love had always been hoops, but as an average-sized guard, he said, "I looked at the future and figured playing basketball in college wasn't realistic."
With height, it became possible. Soon Hayward simultaneously had profiles on TennisRecruiting.net and Rivals.com Basketball Recruiting, which listed him as a three-star, mid-major-level prospect. Butler's family atmosphere won him over, and he committed there -- for hoops -- as a junior, then opted out of playing AAU basketball the following summer. He wanted to put in enough tennis work to try to win a state singles title as a senior.
Butler coach Brad Stevens used an afternoon during the spring contact period -- following Hayward's miraculous buzzer-beater to win an Indiana 4A state title -- to watch one of Hayward's tennis matches. Stevens remembers Hayward had a wicked serve; Hayward remembers it was the first match he lost that season. He finished 26-3, falling in the state tournament, and hasn't picked up a racket since. Heather now plays tennis at Butler, but for Gordon, tennis may ultimately be remembered as the reason he remained under the national radar as a hoopster, unranked by any of the AAU-focused recruiting services.
Hayward's Q rating should explode this summer, though, following a freshman year at Butler in which he averaged 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds, and helped the Bulldogs reach the NCAA tournament after being picked to finish fifth in the Horizon League. On Wednesday morning at USA Basketball's 19-and-under trials, there was more buzz over Hayward than any other player in camp.
Sharing a court with mega-recruits like Florida-bound Kenny Boynton and former top 100 big men such as Minnesota's Ralph Sampson III and Georgia's Howard Thompkins, Hayward dominated an early scrimmage with his stellar long-range shooting (6-of-9 from the field for 15 points) and passing ability (three assists, no turnovers). He had the gallery of NBA scouts and college coaches atwitter. "This Hayward kid is impressive," one scout remarked. "He's not just a shooter, either -- he can put the ball on the floor and make plays."
No one was rushing to put him on their 2010 draft boards -- Hayward still projects as a 3-4 year college player who, at 200 pounds, has yet to fill out his frame -- but he could eventually become Butler's first NBA player since Ralph "Buckshot" O'Brien in 1953. In the meantime, after making Jamie Dixon's 12-man roster for the 19-and-under team, Hayward should begin to be viewed as a high-level national talent rather than merely the All-Horizon League player he was as a freshman. As Butler's Stevens says, Hayward is a player "with a very high ceiling."
The appeal of Hayward is his versatility. He was a guard early in high school. Last year at Butler, he says, "I ended up playing every position but true center. I'm too scrawny to play that." Both he and teammate Shelvin Mack -- the only other mid-major invitee at camp (he also made the team) and a three-star prospect out of Lexington, Ky., who can seamlessly move between the point and shooting-guard positions -- were undervalued recruiting coups for Stevens. After losing five of the top six contributors from a team that went 30-4 in 2007-08, Stevens trotted out a starting lineup last season with junior Willie Veasley, sophomore Matt Howard and three freshmen.
"We didn't have time to wait for guys to figure it out," Stevens said. "They had to do it on the fly, and be really impactful to give us a chance to be good. And both Gordon and Shelvin were that way from our first practice."
The Bulldogs surprisingly jumped out to a 19-1 start, into the national rankings, and won the Horizon League regular-season title for the third straight season. Hayward's signature game came at Davidson on BracketBuster weekend, when he scored 27 points (shooting 4-of-7 from long range) and grabbed nine rebounds in a 75-63 win, upstaging mid-major darling Stephen Curry, who finished with 20 points.
Butler went on to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed, and lost to LSU in the first round. Back at home on the day after that loss, Hayward sprained an ankle in a pickup game with old Brownsburg High teammates, and was forced to sit out for 3-4 weeks.
The rest may have been a blessing, given what was ahead on his agenda: This week's U.S. trials, a trip to New Zealand for the 19-and-under World Championships, an exhibition tour of Italy with the Bulldogs in August, and then a hellacious nonconference schedule starting in November. The Bulldogs have home games scheduled against Ohio State, Xavier and Davidson; road games at UAB and Northwestern; an appearance in the Anaheim Classic that also features UCLA, Clemson and West Virginia; and a Jimmy V Classic game against Georgetown at Madison Square Garden.
If Hayward performs as well this winter as he has this week, those teams will be wishing he had instead played tennis for Purdue.
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