by Peter Walsh
Gordon Hayward’s childhood bedroom in Brownsburg, IN, was full of Pacers’ paraphernalia, providing an ample setting for his nightly hoop dreams. But at 14, Hayward’s basketball career nearly ended before it even started. As a 5-10, 125-pound tennis playing freshman, he was physically more suited for forehands and serves than jump shots and rebounds. Knowing that he wanted to play a sport in college, he was ready to give up on hoops for tennis altogether when his mother intervened. “My mom told me to stick with it, basketball was always my first love and what I loved doing way more than tennis,” says Hayward. “Then I had a big growth spurt and it all went from there.”
The growth spurt the laid-back Hayward casually mentions changed his life forever. By the time he was a senior in high school, Hayward had sprouted to 6-8 and likely became the only high school player in history to have profiles on both tennis and basketball recruiting websites. Considering neither his parents nor his twin sister, Heather, are taller than 5-10, Gordon’s 6-8, 220-pound frame is a familial anomaly. As Hayward tells it, the extreme growth spurt was an existential happening; the basketball gods smiling down on a kid who loved the game and wanted nothing more than to succeed on the court. “It was an act of fate,” says Hayward. “There’s no other way to explain my height.”
Though the height came later in his teen years, the skills seen on the court were being developed well before his body changed from a guard’s size to a forward’s. Every morning, Hayward would wake up at dawn and go to the backyard with his father, Gordon Sr, to work on his game. “[My father] was my coach all the way up until high school,” says Hayward. “He was getting me up every morning before school and we’d go out into the backyard. We had a drill called the “Steve Alford Drill”, being from Indiana Steve Alford was one of the best shooters to ever play there. We did his drill before school in the morning and then [my father] would go out and shoot free throws with me.”
Preparing to play guard once he hit high school, Hayward worked primarily on ball-handling, passing and jump shooting. Once he grew, the countless hours spent doing the ‘Steve Alford Drill’ combined with his newfound height made Hayward a lethal player with the ability to score on the perimeter and in the post. After taking the summer off from ball to focus on tennis following his junior year (he finished 26-3 and second in the state in singles tennis his senior year of high school), he returned to the hardwood and averaged 18.0 points, 8.4 boards and 3.6 assists per game and was named first team All-State as a senior. Hayward also led Brownsburg High to the Indiana Class 4A state championship where he won the game in dramatic fashion by hitting a buzzer-beating lay-up to down Marion High 40-39.
Despite playing in the basketball hotbed of Indiana, Hayward’s 6-8 frame and smooth shooting stroke went largely unnoticed by college coaches. He garnered just three offers from D-I programs: One from IUPUI, one from his parents’ alma mater, Purdue, and one from nearby Butler University. Wanting to be close to his tight-knit family, Hayward chose Butler because his twin sister had the opportunity to play tennis there on scholarship. Plus the 6:30 a.m. practices wouldn’t interfere with his Computer Engineering major.
During his two successful seasons at Butler under current Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens, Hayward morphed from an unheralded recruit to a college star for the Bulldogs. After leading Butler to the 2010 NCAA Final against Duke and just missing a last second halfcourt heave that would have given Butler its first NCAA Championship in school history, Hayward decided to leave college and declare for the NBA Draft. Hot off a superb Tournament run, Hayward climbed draft boards and was selected ninth overall by the Jazz, one pick before the hometown Pacers.
As a 20-year-old rookie, he appeared in 72 games and averaged 5.4 points, 1.9 boards and 1.1 assists in 16.9 minutes per game. Though he dominated the college ranks, the still-slim Hayward wasn’t strong enough to play in the post nor quick enough to play on the perimeter. He was in danger of becoming a positionless player; the NBA’s cruel version of purgatory.
In the offseason, Hayward got in the gym and refined his game by adding drills to the same workouts his father put him through in the backyard of their Brownsburg home. “I knew I had to get better at handling the basketball, that was always going to be the big thing for me,” says Hayward. “If you can handle the ball and go where you want to go with it, it can really open up every part of your game. During my rookie year, I was really just a spot up shooter and I wanted to become a lot more than that.”
During the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season, Hayward began to blossom. He started 58 games and his averages jumped to 11.8 points, 3.5 boards and 3.1 assists per game. The 2012-13 season saw more improvement as a bigger, stronger, more polished Hayward solidified his spot in the guard rotation thanks to his shooting ability and improved ballhandling. Even though he inexplicably came off the bench backing up Randy Foye and started just 27 games, his averages jumped to 14.3 points, 3.1 boards and 3.0 assists per game. With Foye, Al Jefferson, and Paul Millsap all gone from Utah by the end of the offseason, Hayward emerged as a top priority in Utah’s rebuilding efforts.
Right before the season started, the Jazz front office attempted to sign the thriving two-guard to a four year, $40 million deal that would keep him, recently re-signed Derrick Favors (four years, 47 million), and rookie point guard Trey Burke together for at least three seasons. Instead of re-upping with the Jazz, however, Hayward decided to bet on himself as a player and turned down the deal in hopes of a more lucrative contract at the end of the season. “Anytime you’re playing somewhere and contract comes up, it’s a tough thing,” says Hayward. “It’s a business decision and sitting down with my agent, we wanted to explore our options and had some things we wanted to prove. There’s no doubt that I love being in Utah and I’d love to see my career continue there but it didn’t work out with what we were doing in contract negotiations.”
So far, Hayward’s gamble has paid off in a big way. The fourth year pro is playing the best ball of his career and is currently averaging 15.8 points, 5.4 boards and 5.0 assists and is making a strong case for All-Star and Most Improved Player consideration. Hayward has surprised with his athleticism and incredibly high basketball IQ; he is emerging as a legitimate star and opposing teams are doing all they can to shut him down on a nightly basis. “[On] our scouting report, we’re talking about Gordon Hayward, Gordon Hayward, Gordon Hayward,” Hawks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer told the Salt Lake Tribune. “To be able to take that kind of defensive focus and attention and still produce for himself and his teammates is something that’s a big adjustment.”
“He’s trying to be a franchise guy and, well, he should,” Grizzlies Head Coach Dave Joerger also told the Tribune. “He’s a terrific player. He plays hard, he runs hard, he cuts hard. By and large, he makes open shots. He’s a tough cover. He plays the right way. He plays the way you would want your kids to play.”
Though Hayward is playing well, the Jazz are 20-36 and heading to the Lottery once again. For Hayward, who is used to winning on the hardwood and the tennis courts, losing has been a particularly tough pill to swallow. “I hate losing, it’s been very difficult,” says Hayward. “There’s been some sleepless nights, but hopefully in the long run it will all be worth it.”
For the 23-year-old, recently engaged Hayward, a big contract and plenty of wins are somewhere on the horizon. In the meantime, Hayward is enjoying the ride. “[I’m] playing basketball for a living, I’m engaged to a beautiful woman—I’m living the life right now. I’m trying to soak it all in and at the same time get better as a basketball player. I still think there’s a lot more room for me to grow and a lot more places to go.”