Almost everyone who's followed the career of Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward agrees - his college coach was one of the first people to recognize his talent and tell him he might succeed in the NBA.
"Gee," mused a facetious Brad Stevens, the former Butler coach now at the helm of the Boston Celtics. "What a great prediction that was."
Stevens laughs it off because to him, Hayward's pro success was obvious from the start. The young swingman committed to Butler as a high school junior back in the spring of 2007, and Stevens has been watching his progress ever since.
"He was a 6-foot-7 gangly kid that was a great tennis player," Stevens recalls. "He committed to us on June 1, but he didn't pick up a basketball until September, other than maybe on Sunday mornings for games with his dad, because he wanted to win a state championship in tennis."
The coach remembers the first time he saw Hayward in action on the tennis court. A standout two-sport star in Indiana, he was one of the top 10 players in the state as junior.
"The one time I saw him play, he got beat, and he was wearing a Purdue hat and Purdue shorts," Stevens said. "I wasn't very happy with him after that day."
Somehow, Stevens maintained faith in the kid, and his optimism paid off over time. After committing himself to basketball full-time, Hayward turned in a spectacular two seasons at Butler, totaling 992 points and 512 rebounds.
He's improved more since coming out for the 2010 draft. Hayward has quietly emerged into one of the most promising young wing players in the NBA, as he averaged 17.4 points per game for the Jazz last season. He's currently one of few bright spots on a Utah team that's 0-4 to start the season. One of the biggest storylines in Salt Lake City this fall was the possibility of a max extension for Hayward, who's still only 23.
"He's a really good player, and he's only gotten better since I coached him," Stevens said. "He's put on a lot of weight, he can create his own shot. He almost sent [Friday's] Phoenix game into overtime just on a right-hand pickup for 3 where he lost his guy at the top of the key. He can go right, he can go left. He's good. He's good."
Of course, no matter what Hayward accomplishes in the NBA, his signature moment in basketball will always be the final moment of his college career, when he launched a halfcourt shot that would have beaten Duke to win the NCAA Tournament in 2010. Hayward's shot rimmed out, the Blue Devils won it all and the rest is history.
Stevens insists that he almost never reflects on the iconic shot, except when forced to.
"The only reason I think about it is that I see it every time I turn on the TV," Stevens said. "I feel bad for him because the immortalized shot of his that banked off the rim is the one that they show every single March."
Times have changed now, and both men have moved on. Stevens is on the sidelines in Boston, and Hayward is in Utah purple, playing against his old coach for the first time.
"When I go out there and see him wearing that green on the opposing side, that's when it'll hit me," Hayward said. "Last time I played for him was in that championship game. It'll be a pretty cool feeling, I think."
Hayward said that he was as surprised as anyone to discover Stevens was leaving Butler for the NBA this fall. His emotions upon finding out, he said, were a combination of excitement and shock.
"I didn't know it was going to happen," Hayward said. "I went out to eat with him about a month earlier, and we talked about Butler - how their season was going to be, who was going to score for them, who was going to be their big guy inside. Then to find out that he was going to be in the NBA, wow. It was a cool feeling, and I looked forward to playing the Celtics."
Of course, there had always been rumors about Stevens leaving Butler for big-name schools, including one very notable one about UCLA. Hayward never took that buzz seriously, but the NBA is a different animal altogether.
"He said he would never leave Butler for another college," Hayward said of his former coach. "I guess he was true to his word on that. I can see him at the next level - I've discussed a lot of things with him about the NBA. He just likes the game so much, and he likes talking about all levels of the game. He's here now, and I'm happy for him."
It's only been three years ago since Stevens and Hayward were at the college level together, coming within one tragic rim bounce of an NCAA championship. Now they're both in the pros.
It's a slightly different stage - that Butler team had a 33-4 record going into the 2010 title game, whereas these Celtics and Jazz are a combined 0-8 this season. Nonetheless, tonight is a big night for both coach and player.
"I've probably done it in an intra-squad scrimmage before," Stevens said of coaching against Hayward. "Obviously, the result of that one probably didn't matter as much."
"We're both competitors," Hayward added. "I'm hoping we get the win."