I’ve had two days to digest Monday night’s National Title game. It was fantastic. One of the best, closest, most evenly matched sporting events I’ve ever witnessed. One thing I can’t get out of my head though, is that I still think Butler should have come out on top. There’s one reason for that: Gordon Hayward didn’t play up to his ability.
I really like Hayward. He’s a fantastic kid, a great story and a really nice player. Over the past month scouts have been salivating over his ability to shoot and get to the hoop with regularity against great college competition, and how unfazed he was by the spotlight and the big moments. But on Monday night we finally saw Hayward be overwhelmed. We finally saw a chink in the armor.
Let me again preface this by saying I really like Hayward. In a previous post I stated that I thought the sophomore should stick around for another year and develop his game and strength even further. Some people took that as me knocking his ability. That is not the case. I think it would benefit him tremendously to stick around for another season and Monday night proved that I’m right.
Hayward – who was supposed to be the best player on the floor at the Final Four – finished the title game with 12 points and eight rebounds. He was an abysmal 2-for-11 from the field, and one of those makes was a put-back when he wasn’t blocked out. He was 0-for-3 from behind the 3-point line and his line was saved by going a perfect 8-for-8 from the charity stripe.
So what happened to that free flowing, gorgeous offensive game that Hayward supposedly has? Kyle Singler’s defense happened.
Singler stole the title of best player on the floor at the Final Four from Hayward. He stepped up and dropped 19 points, grabbed nine rebounds, had two assists, one steal and two huge blocks. He was 7-for-13 from the field, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc. But Singler’s biggest contribution to Duke’s title-winning performance was his defense on Hayward.
Singler projects as not much more than a second round pick at the moment. I’m sure his performance in the tournament helped him a little but he shows little or no upside physically and the junior probably needs to take advantage of his final year to polish his game.
So if Hayward could be utterly shutdown and made to look pedestrian by a guy who is no more than a second rounder in the NBA, what does that say about where his game is currently?
During the final game Hayward looked tentative. His cuts weren’t as sharp, his ball-handling wasn’t perfect and his shot was off. He also never displayed a sense of urgency. I realize Butler’s whole mantra was that they were a team where everyone could step up and make plays, but at no point did Hayward – the Bulldogs’ best player – demand the ball and press the issue. Great players can take the ball and tell the defender what they’re going to do and still accomplish it, “I’m taking the ball, I’m going to go right there, I’m going to shoot and I’m going to score.” Hayward had shown that earlier in the year against inferior competition, but against Duke and Singler that instinct abandoned him.
His decision making on Butler’s final full possession was questionable as well. Rather than make a move and pull-up over Singler (who he has an inch on height-wise), he drove to the right side, and shot a fade away jumper over 7-footer Brian Zoubek. It almost fell in, which shows that Hayward can get his shot off and up, but it was still a head-scratching decision.
The fact that he couldn’t get to the basket past Singler all night is a huge red flag as well. Part of the appeal of Hayward has been his diverse offensive game. But if a decent, but not otherworldly defender could completely shut him down, what’s going to happen at the next level? If Hayward can’t get to the hoop that makes him nothing more than a 6’9 jump shooter. While those are nice to have, they’re not what you want to spend a high lottery pick on.
If Heyward comes back he can put some strength onto his base – which will make him more difficult to post up on – and add some quickness in the offseason. Strength and quickness could turn him into the player he’s projected to become, while giving him time to sharpen his shot (he finished the season hitting just 29 percent of his 3-pointers.
He’ll also return to a loaded Butler squad. Coach Brad Stevens isn’t going anywhere, the Bulldogs have an excellent recruiting class and they only lose Willie Veasley and Avery Jukes among their major contributors. Hayward would be an early favorite for national player of the year and Butler would also be a favorite to make another Final Four run. A year in the spotlight would give Hayward even more of a chance to impress and improve his stock.
Besides, if you’re going to be a high lottery pick you have to be a guy people watch and say “My team has to have that guy now.” Is anyone else in the country salivating over Gordon Hayward right now? Aside from Larry Bird – who pays tall white players ridiculous sums of money like it’s going of style – I don’t think so. Oh and by the way Larry, Austin Croshere delivered a pizza to my place last week.
I just hope it’s clear to all those around Gordon Hayward that he needs another year to develop.