From Section VI star to prep school to a key role as a freshman in the Big East. Niagara Falls native and Syracuse sixth man Paul Harris isn't the only local basketball product whose story reads that way this season.
Former Buffalo Traditional star Lazar Hayward, Harris' prep school teammate and roommate, is taking on a bigger role every game at Marquette -- and even moved into the Golden Eagles' starting lineup for the first time Sunday night when Harris & Co. visited Milwaukee.
The 6-foot-6 Hayward missed several weeks of workouts and practices prior to the season while Marquette and the NCAA reviewed his academic credentials from high school and Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass. But he was eligible in time for the season opener and is averaging 6.6 points and 3.9 rebounds in 15.2 minutes per game.
"In the beginning I had to catch up to the speed of the game, the running, the flow of the offense and trying to jell with the guys," Hayward said this week by phone from Milwaukee. "I'm caught up pretty much now and it's showing. My teammates have really helped me and I'm getting more time."
Hayward is one of 14 Western New Yorkers in Division I this season. Two of them (the University at Buffalo's Rodney Pierce and Texas-El Paso's Franklin Jones) are redshirting. The best of the lot at this stage of their development is clearly Hofstra guard Loren Stokes, who is heading toward his 2,000th career point while trying to help the Pride to a Colonial Athletic Association title and its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2001. Harris and Canisius' Corey Herring are the only others averaging in double figures in points.
Hayward, who led Traditional to the state final four in 2004, got his starting spot after a 12-point, five-rebound performance in a Jan. 4 loss at Providence that opened Big East play. He had seven points and five rebounds in Sunday's loss to Syracuse but had only two points and two boards in Wednesday's win at Connecticut that broke the Huskies' 31-game home winning streak.
"We've just tried to get him to the point where he doesn't overthink and overanalyze," Marquette coach Tom Crean said Thursday on the Big East's weekly teleconference. "When he gets in and just plays is when he's at his best. And having a sense of urgency defensively is where he's gained his most strides."
Marquette got off to a hot start, winning 12 of its first 14 games, with the biggest victories coming over Texas Tech and Duke in the CBE Classic in Kansas City, Mo. It was ranked 16th in the preseason AP poll and got as high as eighth before home losses to North Dakota State and Wisconsin (Hayward had 10 points and eight rebounds against the No. 3 Badgers).
After losses to Syracuse and Providence last week, the Golden Eagles fell from 15th in the rankings to outside of the top 25 but should get consideration again if they win Saturday against West Virginia.
In large part because of the graduation loss of 6-10 gunner Steve Novak, the Golden Eagles' offense has struggled most of the year. In fact, Marquette is averaging just 64.5 points over the last four games.
"We have to drive and kick more and make the extra passes," Hayward said. "We settled for some bad shots. We just have to get back to believing and never feeling we'll lose. Before Texas Tech and Duke, we just knew that."
Hayward was supposed to help fill Novak's void but he has had a rough time with his outside shooting, going just 4 of 26 from three-point range. Crean pointedly suggested to him he spend more time in the gym practicing his jump shot but it was hard initially while Hayward was trying to adjust to the increased pace of collegiate practices.
"I had to jump right into practice and it's a lot more drawn out here," Hayward said. "Even after I got the feel of that, it was hard to get into the gym to shoot. It's a lot more physical, a lot more running at this level. You've to be really energetic and strong in the Big East."
"Anytime somebody comes to college there's always going to be that adjustment that takes a while," Crean said. "In his case, he missed basically all our preseason and that set him back even further . . . We know he can shoot the ball. The mechanical part is a little bit of not having his legs into his shot or pulling his follow through out rather than extending [his arm] to the basket.
"He's working and we just need him to play with the reckless abandon and tough exterior heart that he has. We're really proud of what he's doing."
Hayward, who has yet to declare a major but had a 3.0 GPA in the first semester, said his father has traveled to Milwaukee for some of the home games and he expects a healthy contingent of family and friends to come from Buffalo for Marquette's Jan. 21 game at Pittsburgh. The Golden Eagles do not play this season at Syracuse.
Hayward said he enjoyed his reunion with Harris, who is leading conference freshmen in rebounding but had only two points Sunday.
"During the game, we talked a little trash and then afterwards we had some laughs," Hayward said. "Last year in prep school, we were joking during the Big East Tournament hoping Syracuse and Marquette would match up. Maybe we will this year."