INDIANAPOLIS – There was a time when returning to this place really brought back some nostalgia.
After all, Gordon Hayward did hit a last-second, game-winning, state title clinching shot for Brownsburg High School in the same venue to which he now returns to his home town as a professional in basketball.
That’s a bit different now than it was on February 25, 2010, when a fresh-faced Hayward returned to Indianapolis with the Utah Jazz just ten months removed from leading Butler to the NCAA Championship Game. Coming back to Central Indiana for a fourth time, there is a sense of routine starting to kick in.
“It’s always nice coming home,” said Hayward, who will take the floor for the Jazz when the face the Pacers Sunday at 6 PM. “This is the fourth time, though, so it’s a little different. Kinda been there, done that.”
Just because it’s not as special as the first time returning home for an NBA doesn’t mean it a bad time. As in the past, Hayward his family along with a few people from Brownsburg to make their way down to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to check out Sunday’s game.
During his media session before the game on Sunday morning, Hayward was asked straight up if this was a business trip now or still a trip home.
“It’s a trip home, always,” said Hayward in response to the question. “Because we only come here one time and a lot of people don’t get to see Utah games. This year we haven’t been on TV that much nationally so unless you have the NBA packages, it’s been a little difficult to watch us play.
“I’m just happy to be able to play in front of friends and family.”
What those family, friends and maybe even Butler Bulldogs fans will see on Sunday is a player who is beginning to come into his own as a leader for a young, rebuilding Jazz team. When Hayward came to Indianapolis for the first time in 2011, he played just 14 minutes and his only field goal from the field was a slam dunk. He’d only 16 minutes a game and just five points during his rookie season in Utah.
Now in his fourth year Hayward has become the leader of an extensive rebuilding project with the Jazz, who were an NBA title contender when he showed up as a rookie. This year Hayward is seeing 36 minutes of action a game as a full-time starter, leading the team with 15.9 points a game along with 5 .5 rebounds and 5.2 assists a contest.
“I do,” said Hayward when asked if he enjoyed his role as a leader on the team. “I’m one of those guys that’s expected to go out every night and perform and try to lead the team to get wins. That’s something that’s challenging but it’s something I embrace.”
Doing so comes without a lot of wins on this team, as the Jazz are 21-37 in a tough Western Conference and are well outside the playoff picture. On top of that Hayward’s shooting percentage has dipped a bit from his career average as he’s making 40 percent of his shots early in the season.
Still Hayward is trying to find other ways to contribute to his team, evidence by a two-a-game increase of both his rebounds and assists.
“It’s one of those things that it’s unfortunate the way that we started the season but we’ve been playing a lot better as of late and we’ve been gaining a lot of valuable experience,” said Hayward. “That’s something you can’t teach.”
But like coming home, its something he can learn to make special even if it seems routine.