Utah Jazz: In Pacers, Gordon Hayward faces team he once idolized
On the night Gordon Hayward was drafted, his phone buzzed with a text message from his childhood hero, Reggie Miller. "It was like the coolest thing ever," the Indiana native says.
Since then, Hayward has crossed paths with other greats from the team he grew up rooting for. He's even played against the Dunking Dutchman, Rik Smits, in pickup games during his summers back home.
But four years into his NBA career, the awe is gone.
"It doesn't matter to me anymore," Hayward said of his hometown Pacers, who will bring their NBA-best 16-2 record to EnergySolutions Arena on Wednesday. "When they had Reggie and them, that's when I loved watching the Pacers. But now I'm a Jazz fan."
Nevertheless, the first-place Pacers still have players on their roster Hayward can look to as he tries to make the next leap in his career. Chief among them, Jazz coach Ty Corbin says, is Paul George.
"It takes a while to grow into [a leading role]," Corbin said. "He's a great example if Gordon's going to look at a guy that's kind of taken it step by step by step. Paul is one of the guys he can look at."
Drafted with consecutive picks Hayward at nine, George at 10 in the 2010 draft, the two swingmen will be forever linked. They've built up a friendship over the years, sharing an agent at one point and training together at times in Indianapolis, where Hayward lives in the offseason.
But while Hayward works to establish himself in the league, George has turned into one of the NBA's elite players. He was an All-Defensive Second Team selection last year, and he's top 10 in the league in steals (2.2 per game) in 2013.
His defensive rating (88.9) is nearly 20 points better than Hayward's (108.8).
"They're good all-around defensively. That's why they're so good," Hayward said. "If you get past the initial guy, you've got another guy waiting on you. So I think it's going to be key for us to make sure when we get into the paint we're looking to kick out and finding somebody who might have a better shot."
On the other end of the floor, George is scoring 24.9 points a night this season good for fourth-best in the league behind only Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. He dropped a career-high 43 Monday night in a loss to Portland.
"Every year he seems to add something to his game," Corbin said. "â¦ He's embracing that leadership role, from being a good player to a really good player and now to being a great player."
That process was accelerated some with injuries to Danny Granger.
"When Granger went down, his role increased and he did some things and they started trusting him," Corbin said. "Now he's one of the guys for them if not the guy."
It's a role Hayward was never afforded until this year, with the departure of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, the team's primary offensive options a season ago.
Hayward is averaging more than 30 minutes a game for the first time in his career something George did a season ago. Hayward's leading the Jazz in scoring at 16.9 points a game, and coming off a slump-busting, season-high 29-point performance against the Houston Rockets.
It's an effort Hayward and the Jazz hope carries over as they prepare for the NBA's best.
"You're amped up for every game," Hayward said, "but this is obviously a bigger one."
Pacers at Jazz
P At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • Wednesday , 7 p.m.
TV • ROOT Sports
Radio • 97.5 FM, 960 AM, 1280 AM
Records • Jazz 4-15; Pacers 16-2
About the Jazz • After an abysmal start to the year, Utah has shown some life, winning three of its last four games. â¦ The team is 3-2 with rookie point guard Trey Burke in the starting lineup. â¦ Gordon Hayward broke out of a shooting slump Monday, hitting 12 of 18 from the floor.
About the Pacers • Coming off a loss Monday night to the Portland Trail Blazers. â¦ Paul George is fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 24.9 points a night. â¦ Roy Hibbert anchors the team's league-leading defense, blocking more than three shots a game.