Hayward, Stevens reunited as they chase NBA dreams
BOSTON -- The NBA's last winless team was packing up and heading off to Chicago. As the last of his teammates dressed in other corners of the locker room, Gordon Hayward sat late Wednesday night in a stall that felt very far away from his winning days at Butler.
"It better be coming," he said quietly of Utah's first victory. "Or else I might lose it.''
This had been Utah's best chance yet for a victory, against the equally winless Celtics. The Jazz ran out to a 16-3 lead, but over the next 17 minutes they enabled their hosts to look and feel like their title teams of 1986 or 2008. The Jazz were outscored 45-16 while committing two shot-clock violations and failing to put up much of a fight. Five of Hayward's teammates were injured and the rest were too young to make a difference.
"Whatever it is," Hayward said after Utah's 97-87 loss, "we've got to figure it out. Chicago is going to be no different. They're going to look to bury us."
This was one of many nights that will teach them to develop the hard edge that's used to define playoff teams. When the Jazz let go of free agents Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson this past summer, they were essentially choosing to accelerate their rebuilding project and begin formulating a new core around Hayward, power forward Derrick Favors, center Enes Kanter and the high pick they'll be earning in the draft next June along with the cap space they'll have going forward. But all of that promise served no good to Hayward on Wednesday night in his reunion with Brad Stevens, his former coach at Butler who had just beaten him and got his first win with the Celtics.
"I can't tell you what that feels like," Stevens said of their reunion here, "because I was there when he was a puppy, when he was a junior in high school and he was a good tennis player and nobody was recruiting him. And it was like, You think we should offer that guy a scholarship? Nobody's looking at him. Nobody's even in the building. It was probably a good decision, in retrospect.''
The last time they had seen each other was over dinner last summer, when Stevens was talking about the team he was looking forward to coaching at Butler. And then a month later Hayward, like everyone else, was shocked by the news that Stevens was taking over the Celtics.
Someone asked if he, based on his three years of professional experience, had offered advice on the NBA life to Stevens. Hayward's laugh revealed that there was no way he was going to big-time his old coach. He was also asked how Stevens reacted to losing.
"We didn't lose very much," Hayward said. The Celtics are losing now, Hayward was told. "We're in the same boat as they are," he said.
Big news was made of the failure for Utah and Hayward to agree on an extension last week. (Only six players in Hayward's 2010 class signed extensions.) But it made sense for the Jazz to wait. Hayward's cap hold next summer will be $8.6 million, which will afford the Jazz a loophole of extra cap space to acquire a free agent until Hayward is signed to an offer sheet. It also might be in Hayward's best interest to reject other teams and renew negotiations with the Jazz, as they and they alone can offer him a fifth year.
Hayward is the rare 6-foot-7 small forward with the ability to defend and attack shooting guards. There is nothing at which he is exceptional and yet he is good at just about everything, with the potential to be more than good. He will create for teammates and score as needed. He has three-point range, he can handle his way to the basket and he can chase down breakaways to swat away layups like a poor man's LeBron James. He showed many of those skills amid his 28 points, nine rebounds and five assists against Stevens' Celtics.
"There are always things I can improve on, and I'm constantly trying to do whatever I can to make myself a better basketball player," Hayward said, and then -- before it could be argued that his humility is a weakness -- he added this: "And I think one day I can be an All-Star in this league. That's a goal of mine and it's something that I'm working toward."
It isn't a recent goal either.
"I've always kind of seen that," he said of his own potential. "It's not something that I look at very much. That's a goal, and once I set that goal I kind of set that aside and focus on putting the work in and getting better as a player, and then those things will come later on if they do. It's not something I think about every day."
After being outscored 27-8 in their horrid second quarter, and then trailing 70-45 in the third, the Jazz made a run thanks to Hayward. The Celtics are going to be vulnerable to comebacks throughout the absence of Rajon Rondo because they lack a quality ball handler. But Utah had Hayward. It is a new role for him to be a leader, but in the final period he led his team with eight points, five rebounds and three assists as he fought back and frightened his young ex-coach. The Jazz drew within 89-83 with about four minutes remaining, and they might have made it closer if anyone apart from Hayward had been able to make a play.
"This is what he wanted," said point guard Jamaal Tinsley, Hayward's 35-year-old teammate. "When you have an opportunity like this as a young player, you dream of this."
When Stevens was a 32-year-old coach and Hayward was his incoming freshman in 2008, neither could have imagined that one would be coach of the NBA's winningest team in history and the other would be viewed as an heir to the franchise once led by John Stockton and Karl Malone. But here they were. One was 1-4, the other was 0-5, and yet the reality of their dreams was coming true.