MINNEAPOLIS – It’s been one year and 18 days, two NBA teams and two D-League squads, and Lazar Hayward is back in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves announced Monday that they signed the forward, whom they traded to Oklahoma City on Dec. 13, 2011, to fill the open roster spot vacated when Josh Howard was waived on Dec. 20. Hayward gives the team more flexibility at small forward and perhaps even shooting guard, where it is sorely lacking after Howard’s ACL tear and Chase Budinger’s meniscus tear.
Hayward has been working out in Los Angeles, both at USC and with the Defenders of the D-League, since being waived by Houston on Oct. 27. Coach Rick Adelman said that worked in Hayward’s favor; at this point, there’s some advantage to signing a player who’s been with a team recently rather than a free agent who hasn’t seen game action since last spring.
While in Los Angeles, Hayward lost about 15 pounds while running six miles a day, he said. Working out at USC, he focused on doing as many activities as possible that involved running and keeping his body as close to game shape as possible.
“The best way to get in game shape is to play in basketball games,” Hayward said. “I knew if anything I had to keep my stamina up.”
Hayward spent much of last season bouncing back and forth between Oklahoma City and its D-League affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers. He averaged 1.4 points in 26 games with the Thunder, but he took away something more from that experience, he said: the knowledge of what it takes to win. Playing alongside James Harden, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, he picked up their work ethic and attitude, and being part of a Finals-bound team can really never be a bad thing.
Hayward has never been much of a scorer in the NBA; in 68 career games over two seasons, he’s averaged just 2.9 points on 35.4 percent shooting. Adelman didn’t elaborate much on what he believes Hayward will bring to the team, and he said there wasn’t one deciding factor that led Minnesota to sign him. He was just the best name out there, Adelman said, plain and simple.
“He plays hard,” Adelman said. “He gives us a guy at that position that gives us that size that we don’t have behind Andrei (Kirilenko) right now, or even behind Alexey (Shved).”
More than anything, Hayward is a warm body. That’s not to say he won’t contribute, but what the Timberwolves need at this point is someone healthy to take some minutes at small forward and shooting guard, to lessen the burden on Kirilenko and Shved. If he can score or defend or facilitate the offense well, that’s almost an added bonus.
For Hayward, this is just another opportunity, and perhaps the best one he could have imagined after being waived by the Rockets on Oct. 27. He was sent to Houston from Oklahoma City as a piece in the Harden deal, and with so many young players under contract, it was no surprise that the Rockets cut ties with him almost immediately.
Hayward said that he didn’t want to go overseas, which is why he remained in Los Angeles and continued to entertain the idea of the D-League. In fact, he talks about the whole process with more poise than the average 26-year-old former first-round pick struggling to crack back into the NBA, and that might be the result of the other work he did during his basketball hiatus.
Hayward said that he’s always been a spiritual person, and he took that to a new level this fall, visiting with two different mediums. He’s seen a spirit, he said, in one of the meetings, but he can’t yet communicate with it, and he’s also worked on meditation in the visits.
“It helps me cope with some of the things that go in, in basketball and in life,” Hayward said. “It helps me a lot.”
So if you ever notice the forward looking slightly vacant on the court, don’t worry. Hayward explained that if he ever appears not to be paying attention during games, it’s because he’s meditating, getting in touch with his body. He just hasn’t explained that to Adelman yet.
Spirits and mediums aside, Hayward will likely integrate with the Timberwolves easily; he’s in shape and familiar with the team and the coaching staff from training camp last year. The expectations are low, and you know Hayward is going to do all he can to meet them. He has to know how fleeting an NBA career can be.