SALT LAKE CITY — The Jazz’s acquisition of Shelvin Mack, who was not eligible to play in their win over the Celtics on Friday night and sat behind the Utah bench, prompted Brad Stevens to discuss the closeness of his Butler University family.
Mack joins former college teammate Gordon Hayward as the Jazz try to make a playoff run. The local media, knowing Stevens’s familiarity with Mack as well as his bond with Hayward, wanted an insider’s view of Mack’s potential impact.
Mack and Hayward are the only active NBA players from Butler, both recruited by Stevens. That is a source of pride with the Celtics coach, having guided two players to the NBA from a mid-major that was little known before Butler made consecutive trips to the national title game.
Each time Stevens visits Salt Lake City he’s asked about Hayward, how the swingman has developed in the NBA and impacted a franchise that, like the Celtics, is trying to rise from rubble. Hayward is a cornerstone, with the Jazz giving him a four-year, $63 million contract.
Hayward, averaging a career-best 19.9 points this season, is a borderline All-Star. He shot just 6 of 16 in Friday’s 111-93 win but still managed 22 points by making 15 trips to the foul line. He has progressed exponentially since Stevens recruited him from Brownsburg, Ind., nearly 10 years ago.
“When I first met with him when we were recruiting him, we talked about, ‘You actually have a chance to be a pro,’ ” Stevens said. “I don’t know that anybody could have envisioned [this]. At that time, he was a 13-point, six-rebound-a-game tennis player. He was growing into his own. He was a long, skinny kid. He was probably 6-foot-7, 180 [pounds] sopping wet.”
Hayward quickly developed into a top college player and left Butler after his sophomore season in 2009-10, following a 2-point loss to Duke in the national title game.
“I think he’s just gotten better, better, and better,” Stevens said. “His first couple of practices at Butler confirmed what the biggest mark would be with a guy of his talent level, and that is his grit and toughness. From that point on, we had no doubt that he had all that stuff. So you knew he was going to be a pro, it was just a matter of the level. He’s established himself as one of the better players around.
“He had a lot of natural talent. I don’t know if he believed me or not, [maybe] he thought I was just a recruiter that was lying to him. We had never had an NBA pro [prospect] in our time but it was obvious that he could do things other guys couldn’t do.”
Hayward is often asked about Stevens’s success in the NBA, having led the Celtics from a lottery team in 2013-14 to an Eastern Conference contender in just two years. The admiration is mutual.
“He told us he would never leave for another college,” Hayward said. “And that was very, very true; he left for the NBA. I’ve always said no matter where he’s at, he’ll be successful, if it’s basketball, if it’s business. Whatever it is. He’s just that type of person that, he’s going to be successful. He puts in the time. He puts in the effort. A very smart guy. No surprise that he’s successful where he’s at.”
Hayward and Stevens have formed a strong bond because they realize their importance to each other’s success. Hayward may not have reached the NBA without Stevens’s tutelage, while Stevens may not have gotten a call from the Celtics had Hayward not led Butler to the Final Four as a No. 5 seed six years ago.
“He knows how to make people successful,” Hayward said of Stevens. “He puts guys in the right positions. He’s very smart with reading defenses and knowing how teams are going to play and what they’re going to do, switches, whatever. They beat us on a last-second shot last year, on their play. He’s just a really smart coach and he always brings the best out of his players. Like I said, I’m proud of what he’s been able to do.”
Butler lost a valued member of its family when Andrew Smith, a key contributor on both Final Four teams, died from cancer on Jan. 12. A distraught Stevens missed a game to be at Smith’s bedside during his final days and then delivered the eulogy at Smith’s funeral.
Hayward was moved by Stevens’s passion for Butler that remains strong. During the All-Star break, Stevens traveled back to Indianapolis to attend the Xavier-Butler game, and he still follows the program closely.
“When you’re recruited to Butler and you go to Butler, he talks about it being a family, and not just while you’re there, a family forever,” Hayward said.
“It’s a very difficult situation what happened, and I know Coach was very close to [Smith]. I think you saw the response from all the Butler family, and for Coach to leave his job and go over there, it just shows the dedication that he has. He’ll always be family no matter where we’re at and that’s why we love playing at Butler.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.