INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Gordon Hayward couldn't quite say no to the NBA's money.
He still hasn't said goodbye to his Butler teammates, either.
The 6-foot-9 sophomore spent Wednesday afternoon telling Bulldogs players and coaches that he would enter the NBA draft while retaining his option of returning to the school he nearly led to a national championship.
Hayward has until May 8 to withdraw his name from the draft. He is projected to go in the top 15 picks and would become the first Butler player selected in the first round.
"I have decided to declare for this June's NBA draft," Hayward said in a statement released by the school. "At the present time, I have not signed with an agent. I'm looking forward to further exploring my options in the NBA, while finishing this semester strongly in the classroom."
Hayward was seen smiling inside the basketball office Wednesday afternoon as he chatted with two of his teammates — outgoing seniors Avery Jukes and Willie Veasley — before the decision was announced. Jukes and Veasley were scheduled to play briefly with the Washington Generals in a Wednesday night game at Conseco Fieldhouse against the Harlem Globetrotters.
Both said they supported Hayward's decision and don't believe he will be back with the Bulldogs next season.
"He still has some time, but I think he's got a pretty good shot of going pretty high," Veasley said. "This is probably one of the toughest decisions he's ever had to make because we did so well and we always talked about that bond that we had together. But I'm sure he's excited to make it onto this stage."
Money may not have been the only factor, either.
If Hayward returned to college, he'd be looking at either coming out next season with the possibility of an NBA lockout or playing all four college seasons in a draft that tends to reward potential over experience.
A native of Brownsburg, Ind., located on the west side of Indianapolis, Hayward led the Bulldogs with 15.5 points per game and into the school's first national championship game. He was voted Horizon League player of the year and Most Outstanding Player of the West Regional, and along the way his draft stock soared.
Hayward is considered a small forward with point-guard skills, a combination that made him a matchup problem for most college teams. At Butler, Hayward handled the ball, shot 3-pointers and became even more adept at driving past bigger defenders.
And that might not be the best part of his game.
"My first reaction was that he'll be a good pro because I think he held a lot back in college," Jukes said. "I think he was not as aggressive as he could have been, and if they can bring that out of him, they're going to have a great pro player."
Still, Hayward's versatility was one of the primary reasons Butler reached its first Final Four. Hayward also had two chances to give the Bulldogs a national title, but he missed a baseline jumper with about 5 seconds to go, and his buzzer-beating half-court heave bounced off the rim, giving Duke a 61-59 victory.
Butler coach Brad Stevens sounded as collected about the decision as he had throughout the Bulldogs' improbable tourney run.
"We'll support him as we gather additional information," Stevens said, one week after signing a 12-year deal to stay at Butler.
Stevens' decision left only one lingering question for the Bulldogs: Would Hayward return?
He still could, and if Hayward pulls out of the draft, Butler will have four of its five starters back. That could put the Bulldogs among the top five in the preseason poll.
Without him, Butler will still have 2008 Horizon League player of the year Matt Howard and both guards, Ronald Nored and Shelvin Mack, back in the lineup. Nored was chosen the league's co-defensive player of the year this season.
"I'm not going to lie, it will hurt them because he's one of our best players," Jukes said. "But we played without Matt before, we played without Shelvin before, we played without Ronald before, I don't know if we've played without Gordon before but we've proven that we can pick it up. There's always a chance he could come back, too. You just never know."