Big Time Players Make Plays
Gordon Hayward impressed this weekend.
by Colin Powers
The debate over how much value to assign a player’s performance in the NCAA Tournament is an annual rite of passage, a mark of the season like Groundhog Day, Passover/Easter, and the Yankees commencing another season of distinction. Each side has its merits, one saying the competition and pressurized environment of March best indicates the fundamental character of a player. The other states it is best to look at a player’s entire body of work, that defining someone by such a small sample-size is a fool-hardy pursuit. I will not take a stand in the absolute for either side, but I will agree the Tournament provides an excellent platform for leveling the playing fields and observing what any player, whether from the mid-majors or the hyped up super conferences, is capable of against the nation’s elite. It is not the full picture and it would be a mistake to damn a player for one poor shooting night or misstep. But for some players, they finally get the national showcase to determine where they really belong on the totem pole. A few guys took maximum advantage of this stage to demand our attention.
Before we go there, I first want to say I like everything there is about Butler. Brad Stevens represents a new generation of coaching, his approach, demeanor, and style standing in direct contrast to many of the old guard who popped up on CBS this weekend. The traditionalists still hold the fort for the most part, but the vanguard of Coach Stevens will hopefully gain further traction in the years to come. Watching Stevens this Tournament, he’s been all smiles, positive reinforcement, and cheering on, his belief in his players instilling self-belief in themselves. At the same time, just because he doesn’t take the authoritarian approach of his coaching predecessors, Stevens still has full command and respect of his players. Indeed, Butler may be the most disciplined team in the Tournament, a group clearly invested in the collective before any individual ambitions. Stevens’ calm and encouraging nature seemed to manifest in his players, especially in late game situations this weekend when they encountered some genuine adversity. They made the big plays and never panicked, and much of that credit should be directed to the wunderkind of a Head Coach.
To be fair, Coach K and Coach Izzo are certainly card-carrying members of the old school, and both their teams also sit here in the Final Four; both methods have their successes. I just like what Stevens represents, and how he goes about his business.
Back to the players. Shelvin Mack, captain of the U-19 USA Men’s Basketball team last summer, once again displayed that steely resolve, poise, and playmaking ability that inspired Butler throughout the season. He’s very strong with the ball, so once he gets a defender on his hip, he’s able to completely dictate the action. Mack shoots it relatively well from three (39 percent), and very efficiently uses that power and deceptive first step to get where he needs on the court, especially in pick-and-roll situations. He’s a great college player and leader, and along with his backcourt mates Willie Veasley and Ronald Nored, he’ll make things very difficult for Korie Lucious and Michigan State next Saturday.
As far as next level prospect goes, Mack may not have the right kind of game, but Gordon Hayward has continued his excellent play and proven himself to be one of the bigger match-up problems in the country. At 6-9, Hayward still needs to grow into his body a bit as is to be expected (I mean, I think we’re all familiar with how ‘baby-faced’ he is after the telecasts this weekend). He knocked down a few big 3’s in the two games against Syracuse and Kansas State, but his mechanics are neither particularly clean nor consistent at this point, indicated by his 30% shooting from distance this season. His right hand tends to cross in front of his face when pulling from deep, and too often he seems to bring his hands down immediately after the release instead of holding them for the follow-through. Nonetheless, from everything I’ve read, he’s a very hard-working kid, and those are kinks that can be resolved via dedicated gym-time.
Beyond his jumper, though, Hayward is a very impressive player. As I said, he is physically unimposing, but he handles himself quite well on the block, boxing out and assertively rebounding in traffic. He was frequently matched up with Wesley Johnson on Thursday, one of the quickest and highest jumpers in all of college basketball, but Hayward was able to seal him off and control the painted area throughout. It would be easy to slip into the lazy, prejudiced typecasting of Hayward as another hard-working, savvy, but unathletic white guy, yet that description is simply untrue. In fact, to go along with his proficiency in blocking out, Hayward also springs quite well and has quick feet for a player of his size, doing a good job of staying-in-front on the defensive end.
Offensively, Hayward is dynamic and difficult to handle off the bounce and off the catch. He is very quick in his preferred right-footed jab-step, freezing the defender before sweeping left and attacking the lane. He utilized the move best on the left side of the court, where he would drive the ball baseline and either make a play for himself or his teammates. His understated strength again surfaced in these sequences, as he was able to power through the initial bump of the defense and advance on towards the basket. Hayward also stayed active off the ball particularly against the potentially stifling zone of Syracuse.
Hayward’s most enticing ability for the professional ranks is his dexterity with the ball in his hands, something he had on full display against Kansas State. In attempting to alleviate the pressure of the Wildcat defense down the stretch, Coach Stevens elected to have Hayward bring the ball up as the primary ball-handler. Though he lost control of the ball at one crucial juncture before flattening Clemente, Hayward did quite well and served as an essential parachute for Butler’s guards who were clearly fatiguing after KSU’s relentless pressure. Hayward’s compilation of hesitations with each hand and a quick, low cross-over put Frank Martin in a bind as none of his defenders could stay in-front of him. He was able to lure defenders out and stand them up, setting them up for my favorite Bill Raftery phrase: ‘the blow byyyy.’
Just handling the rock is not enough, however (remember, dribbling around chairs at NBA workouts does not make you a ball-handler). You also need a feel for the game, the ever clichéd court-sense that will steer you clear from trouble and keep the ball moving where it should. Gordon Hayward is very strong in this area. With the benefit of his size, he can see over the defense and find angles and opportunities that a smaller player might miss. He keeps his head up in transition and made a few beautiful deliveries on Thursday and Saturday. Though he left his feet a bit more than to be desired, Hayward was also skillful in the drive-and-kick game, setting up his teammates for open looks for three. Very importantly, he does not over-dribble and rounds out the package by being adept at passing with both hands.
In general, I really like the way Hayward handles himself. He was fouled late in the Syracuse game, and went to the line with the outcome yet to be decided. After making the first, he proceeded to airball the second. I figured, that’s gonna rattle the kid, he won’t want to see the ball the rest of the game. But the next time Butler inbounded the ball, Hayward made sure he got his hands on it, secured it, got fouled, and knocked down both. I liked to see that. If he can get himself into the 40 percent range from three, I think Hayward can be a very nice player in the NBA.
Elsewhere, Epke Udoh’s activity and shot-blocking prowess were very impressive. He might be the quickest jumper I’ve seen in the Tournament. Da’Sean’s still killin’ it. Don’t act like I never told you. And I saw Kryie Irving play Friday night…dude can ball. Expect more on that soon.