#TGW: Strength and Character

Guard Corey Heyward defends during the second half in the semifinals of the 2017 NIT Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
May 1, 2017

By Jon Cooper | The Good Word

- Last Tuesday was unique for Corey Heyward, as it began a time for reflection.

“Today is the official last day of class of undergrad if you’re a senior,” said Heyward, breaking into a big smile. “I just finished up with an online simulation for that class.”

There’s no way to simulate the course of Heyward’s career path at Georgia Tech. Five years ago he arrived on campus as a guy who admitted he didn’t really have much use for defense in high school, preferring offense. He’d then learn how much sacrifice could be involved in just getting back on the court, as he twice tore the ACL in his left knee -- the second time trying to come back too soon after rehabbing from the first injury.

All this experience made the Duluth, Ga., native stronger and smarter, and he’d become a shining example of what a Georgia Tech basketball is about during the team’s tremendous 2016-17 season, and why it’s program is on the rise.

“I’m just thankful and blessed to be able to have the opportunity that Coach Pastner gave us and to kind of set the standard and the regulations of the program was awesome,” he said. “It wasn’t more physically putting the effort in, it was more mental. Sometimes you have to fight, you have to understand that your brothers are also probably aching at the same time. We built the whole team camaraderie and the whole team mission statement to do it for each other. So regardless of what you’re going through we need all the pieces -- the guys who didn’t play, the guys who played, the guys who got limited minutes -- we were all in it together.”

Whether it was for coach Josh Pastner or his predecessor Brian Gregory, Heyward was all in, all the time.

 

 

“I’m the kind of player that whatever’s best for the team I’ll help,” he said. “I’m a team guy. I would like the fans, Yellow Jacket Nation, to think of Corey Heyward as a player that was willing to do anything for his team, give 110 percent effort on the court, be a leader off the court, on the court and a guy that was consistent. You knew what you were going to get out of me regardless of the situation. If I was going to do something wrong I was going to do it wrong 110 percent, just playing hard. This year I was given the opportunity, and I stepped up and embraced my role.”

After playing 59 games and making 28 career starts over his first three years, Heyward played in 37 games, starting 32 of them -- both career highs -- including the 17 of the final 18. He made more field goals (21), three-point field goals (10) and free throws (20), grabbed more rebounds (67) and handed out more assists (38) in 2016-17 than in his first three seasons combined, while playing a career-best 16.9 minutes.

He personified ball security, committing only 18 turnovers in 621 minutes and only five in 309 minutes over his final 18 games. He had 25 clean games on the season, 10 in ACC play, and only once had as many as three turnovers in a game -- the second game of the season, against Southern.

“If you’re having turnovers, that’s definitely a liability to the team, especially with today’s game. Everybody’s pressuring and sometimes you need two or three ball-handlers out there,” he said. “But all the way up, I’ve taken care of the ball. If you can’t take care of the ball, you’re not going to play.”

Heyward and Josh Heath, who was 10th in the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio, made the Yellow Jackets safe on offense.

“We were very comfortable playing with each other,” he said. “Because I knew his tendencies, he knew mine, what we’re good at, where I was on the court. If I knew he needed help I’d come back and help him, he’d help me.”

Defensively, Heyward was a padlock, earning the role of lockdown defender, and he played it to the hilt, giving opposing stars fits. Among his victims in 2016-17 were Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame, the ACC’s 10th-leading scorer (17.7 ppg) and sixth most accurate shooter (49.9), who Heyward limited to 10 points on 3-for-7 shooting (he averaged 13.4 shots per game for the season) and Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia, who averaged 13.1 points on 43.3 shooting, but was held to his ACC-low five points on 1-for-7 from the floor (he averaged 10.3 shots per game).

The commitment to defense was a staple for Gregory and Pastner.

“They took pride in defense,” he said. “I think in the past years at Georgia Tech, we needed defense to kind of spark our offense.”

That the 6-1, 212-pound Heyward could shut down much bigger guys like Blossomgame (6-7, 220), and Vasturia (6-6, 212), was a matter of extreme pride.

“I took it personally,” he said. “Especially, I know some of these guys. To say I limited them to a certain number of points was kind of cool. It was totally awesome and then to kind of get credit after the game through the coaches, hopefully we got the win. It was totally awesome just to see I’ve done that, because some of these players are going to play professionally -- overseas as well as in the NBA.”

The commitment to D was learned on The Flats.

“In high school -- you can ask a lot of people that know me -- I actually didn’t play defense. I just wanted to play offense,” he said, with a laugh. “But I kind of found that defense wins championships, and not many people actually want to play defense in today’s game. So I felt I needed to embrace that role. I think defense is one of the little things that some people kind of miss the point of in today’s game.”

Heyward admitted that he also honed his verbal sparring skills.

“Sometimes I did a little bit of trash talking. Some guys while I was guarding them might be like, ‘Give me the ball,’ because I’m a little smaller, but I guess they don’t understand my strength,” he said. “So I’m like, ‘You’re not going to score on me,’ or ‘It’s going to be a tough shot. You might hit one in there but you’re going to miss the next four.’ I enjoyed seeing some of the guys get frustrated, then it kind of lingered throughout the game, so I did my job with that.”

Anyone who didn’t understand Heyward’s strength obviously had never been in the weight room with him.

Heyward was pretty much the unquestioned ironman from day one. He found incentive by looking in the mirror.

“I don’t know what you call it, when you look in the mirror and you feel like you’re smaller than what you are, I usually do that when I’m in there,” he said. “I’m like, ‘I’m little, I don’t know what everybody sees, like my arms….’

“I depend on the weight room, because it’s on you,” he added. “It’s not on anybody else making that result or that decision for you. It’s on you lifting those weights.”

Corey was the big dog in the weight room -- taking on all challengers, the toughest of whom was former center Demarco Cox, who stood 6-8, 276 and was actually signed to a free agent contract by the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.

“Demarco Cox came in from Ole Miss, and I guess he was surprised at my stature and my strength,” Heyward recalled. “We were actually workout buddies. But it’s not easy working out with Demarco. I would push him, and he’d push me.”

Heyward became the guy that pushed all the Jackets in the weight room, especially during summer workouts.

“I just tried to tell them it’s a long season,” he said. “What you do in the summer usually shows up in the spring as well as the fall of the season. I just kind of emphasized that and used my past experience with other guys who gave me knowledge. It’s just using the same things that guys taught me.”

Heyward graduates on Saturday, getting his degree in business administration, and is treating next year and the years beyond the same way he treated every upcoming season with the Yellow Jackets.

“I’m ready to work,” he said. “I’m applying to jobs right now, had a few interviews. I want to be in a big city, wouldn’t mind staying in Atlanta or be in New York City or Chicago. I’m just ready for that whole new chapter.”

He hopes that the standard and priorities he set will stick with current and future Jackets. They can rest assured he’ll let them know if he thinks they’re not.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the guys next year and the years coming, to see how the program goes. I’m very excited for that,” he said. “Whatever the future holds, if I’m in Atlanta or if I’m not, I’ll still be in the guys’ ears, talking to the coaches because we need to make sure the standards never drop.”