Five reasons why Celtics' Gordon Hayward is better than ever now
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BOSTON — A year ago, whenever Gordon Hayward had one of those breakout-type games, his teammates celebrated by dousing him with cups of water or Gatorade.
These days, a few “Good game Gordon” comments from his teammates are about as giddy as they get when he puts up big numbers.
The fact that big games from Hayward are becoming the norm rather than an anomaly speaks to how far the 29-year-old has come since having his career derailed by way of a major ankle injury a couple of years ago.
His improvement is such that the questions and concerns of a year ago don’t hold much water these days.
Instead of folks being so concerned with whether he’s back to playing like he did when he was an All-Star in Utah, there’s a new question folks need to get used to asking Hayward.
How much better is Hayward now compared to when he was in Utah?
While the sample size is still relatively small, here are five reasons why Hayward is, in fact, a better now than when he arrived in Boston in 2017.
While in Utah, it wasn’t unusual for Hayward’s offensive game to be a blend of mid-range jumpers, 3-pointers and an occasional drive to the basket.
He’s still blending all those together now, but Hayward has indeed changed up the formula.
For most of his career, when it came to scoring Hayward leaned heavily on his ability to score via catch-and-shoot or on pull-ups.
This season, Hayward is averaging more than 20 points per game and his ability to get shots from close range has a lot to do with it.
He leads the Celtics in drives per game with 12.6.
Just as telling is the fact that he’s taking a career-high 48.5 percent of his shots from within 10 feet of the rim. Prior to this season, Hayward had never taken more than 34.4 percent from within that range.
IN GOOD HEALTH
When you’ve gone through the kind of rehabilitation Hayward went through to get back on the court, finding silver linings in the journey is a lot easier said than done.
But if there is one, it’s that Hayward is in optimal health on all fronts.
Physically, he’s stronger now than he has ever been since coming to the NBA. And his athleticism and quickness seem to be close to where they need to be for him to be a highly impactful performer.
Combine that with an undeniable confidence he now has in his body and that his teammates have in him, and you now have the ingredients for what has been a recipe of success for Hayward to start this season.
While this is Hayward’s third season with the Celtics, there’s a certain first-time feel about it.
We’ll call it Kylateral damage, with Hayward’s ascension a direct fall-out from Kyrie Irving’s decision to sign with the Brooklyn Nets this past summer.
When Hayward arrived in Boston three years ago, his season ended after just five minutes due to injury. The following season was more about getting back into a rhythm with his teammates and the NBA game.
Now, Hayward is getting ample opportunities to showcase his all-around game and so far it’s working.
Hayward has a usage rate of 21.9, his highest as a Celtic. And he’s doing it with a dramatically different - and more talented - cast of talent around him compared to his years with the Utah Jazz where he was the primary focus.
Here in Boston, three-time All-Star Kemba Walker draws a considerable amount of attention, while Jayson Tatum seems to be settling in as the team’s No. 2 option with Hayward asserting himself as an elite next-to-the-man, next-to-the-man option.
The fact that Hayward is averaging a career-high 7.9 rebounds isn’t that big a shock when you factor in the lack of proven big men Boston has and the hits that group has already taken due to injuries.
But more telling about his work on the boards isn’t the total; but rather the fact that he’s hauling in a larger share of his rebounding opportunities.
After registering single digits throughout his career in rebounding percentage, Hayward has a rebounding percentage of .111.
Among the team’s regulars who have seen action in more than just one game, only Boston big men Grant Williams (.161) and Daniel Theis (.142) have a higher rebounding percentage than Hayward this season.
Part of his success has to do with the team’s increased emphasis on rebounding this season, but he has also benefited from simply being stronger following a rigorous offseason workout regime in which he practically lived at the team’s practice facility.
Hayward’s ability to be a steadying force on the glass bodes well for Boston’s success as well as Hayward’s continued growth.
PRESSURE? WHAT PRESSURE?
The arrival of Hayward was supposed to give Boston the potential crown jewel in their return to basketball royalty where deep playoff runs become an expectation and not a goal.
Since then, Hayward is in a different place as far as the external and to a lesser extent, internal expectations on him. He’s a better player now than he was then, but his role now is one that comes with less pressure than before.
Wins and losses, more now than ever, will fall upon the shoulders of Walker and Tatum while Hayward’s contributions, while important, are not viewed from the same lens as they were upon his initial arrival.
He’s part of the body of success and not considered a face-of-the-franchise kind of player.
So, that allows Hayward to simply focus on doing whatever he can to help the team win, and not be consumed by having the pressure of carrying a franchise even if he has carry-the-franchise talent.
It is nothing short of a win-win scenario for Hayward, who can opt out of his contract this summer and become a free agent, and the Celtics in their quest to get back to being a contender to bring home Banner 18.