BATON ROUGE, La. — As Kieran Hayward leaned into his microphone to answer a question, Antonio Blakeney laughed and ruffled his freshman teammate’s hair.
Through the first eight games of LSU’s season, Hayward was a virtual non-factor. The Australian transplant accumulated just 66 minutes of action and 6 points in his limited exposure.
But Saturday was a different story. In LSU’s 88-80 win over Texas Southern, Hayward put up 8 points and brought in 3 rebounds in 17 minutes. Perhaps most importantly, Hayward showed off his reputation as a sharpshooter, drilling two 3-pointers, matching his career total in one game.
Blakeney wasn’t just laughing at Hayward’s first foray into media coverage though. Blakeney also knew that Hayward saved his team’s — and Blakeney’s — butts more than he’d care to mention.
“I think he changed the game a little bit,” Blakeney said. “They were getting to the rim a lot. My guy actually beat me to the rim a couple of times. But he came in for me and he stopped them a few plays in a row. He went out there and showed us how he was supposed to play.”
Hayward said he wasn’t treating Saturday’s extended playing time as an audition. He was “trying to do his best.” And it’s not just about doing well on offense. He’s trying to contribute in every phase.
“I was just really trying to focus on my defense to get me started,” Hayward explained. “I was trying to have that defense-first mentality. It really helps my offensive flow. Whenever I get an open shot, I just try to knock it down to help the team out.”
Hayward’s defense-first focus has paid off this week. In LSU’s win over N.C. Central on Tuesday, Hayward posted a +/- ratio of +5, meaning that LSU outscored its opponents by five points when he was on the court. Compared to fellow freshmen Skylar Mays (-9) and Wayde Sims (-2), Hayward was by far the most valuable on a minute-by-minute basis, even he was only on the court for eight minutes.
And Hayward only continued this trend Saturday. While Mays and Sims put up +/- ratios of 0 and -3 respectively, Hayward posted a respectable +7, marks better than veterans like Blakeney and point guard Jalyn Patterson.
LSU coach Johnny Jones has been rather complimentary of Hayward over the last week, reiterating that point after Saturday’s breakout performance.
“We hope that he can continue to come,” Jones said. “I thought that he transitioned his practice into the games over the last couple of outings. So it certainly gives us a reason to have a great deal of confidence because of how well he’s playing right now.”
One example Jones cited was how Hayward “provided a spark” against Texas Southern’s leading scorer. Hayward’s defense forced the guard to play over the top, meaning he wasn’t able to work the ball into the paint with dribble penetration or shoot from straight on.
With a performance like this, it’s only natural to assume that Hayward earned himself more playing time in the future. But Hayward isn’t making that assumption.
“Whenever (Jones is) going to put me in, I’m going to try to do my best,” he said. “If he’s going to give me more minutes, that’s just how it goes.”