It’s not an unfair question to ask. Will Gordon Hayward ever return to his old form? An alley-oop gone tragically awry on opening night last season ended Hayward’s Celtics debut after seven years with the Jazz, with a grueling rehab following his fractured tibia. The former Butler star had just signed a four-year, $128 million contract in July and been reunited with his old college coach, but his lost 2017-18 season marked one of the league’s saddest stories in recent memory.
Now back from injury and an arduous recovery, this season hasn’t provided a smooth return to form for Hayward. The 2016-17 All-Star has looked timid and hesitant for significant stretches, often unwilling to attack the tin as he regains his comfort on the floor. Hayward is averaging 4.8 drives to the rim per game this year, down from 9.2 in his final Utah season. He’s now a touch slower horizontally post-injury, and with significant limitations vertically. Has Utah’s former front man been reduced to a complementary player in Boston?
The early-season results haven’t been promising. Hayward entered Wednesday night’s 115-102 win over Minnesota averaging 10.3 PPG, his lowest mark since entering the league as a shaggy-haired rookie in 2010. With the Celtics' depth, Brad Stevens has worked Hayward back slowly, often having him come off the bench. He's shooting 42.5% of his shot attempts from three, which marks a 10% increase from any other season, and has been used primarily as a glorificed floor spacer—albeit a shaky one, shooting just 31.1% from deep.
Yet despite the early troubles, don’t discount Hayward as an impact piece this season just yet. He produced his best night as a Celtic on Wednesday, torching the Timberwolves for 35 points on 14-of-18 shooting. It was a performance worthy of a $128 million man, in complete control of Boston’s attack, especially when starting point guard Terry Rozier (filling in for injured Kyrie Irving) headed to the bench. Hayward bullied Tyus Jones in the pick-and-roll and burst past Andrew Wiggins on a pair of fast breaks. He buried a slate of midrange jumpers over Josh Okogie and iced the contest with a triple over Taj Gibson late in the fourth quarter. Hayward’s best play of the night was an assist, drawing Karl-Anthony Towns out of the paint before sailing a perfect lob to Al Horford. With Kyrie nursing an eye injury, a new alpha dog emerged.
The explosion also came after Hayward went 0-for-6 against the the Spurs on Monday, marking his first scoreless game in more than six years. But that didn't seem to rattle the veteran, who missed his first two shots on Wednesday but then went on to make 14 of his next 16 attempts.
Irving’s absence is necessary to note on the heels of Hayward’s big night. He’s the undisputed fulcrum of Boston’s attack, often shrinking the offensive opportunity of his teammates. Watch Irving erupt for 40 points on a Christmas Day win over Philadelphia, and his ball dominance is unquestioned. But the balance between Irving tallying buckets and engaging his supporting cast is a fine line. Irving said it himself on Dec. 21, telling reporters, “I literally can do anything I want out there at any time I want. But at the same time, it’s 'what can I do for my teammates to be more successful?'” The high-volume scoring outbursts occasionally come at a cost.
It’s fair for Hayward to have a difficult time finding his offensive niche with Boston. He was a centerpiece in Utah, leading the team in field–goal attempts in four consecutive seasons. Quin Snyder doesn’t boast an isolation-heavy offense, yet Hayward still initiated much of Utah’s action, ranking No. 35 in the league in usage rate in 2016-17. Now coming back to Boston after a year lost to injury, it’s not just Irving who Hayward needs to battle for minutes and shots. With the aforementioned duo joined by Rozier, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, there are plenty of mouths to feed at TD Garden, especially on the wing.
Hayward has the best credentials to serve as Irving’s offensive sidekick, a 19 PPG scorer each year from 2014-17. Horford doesn’t have the same burst as he did in Atlanta, while Tatum and Brown are experiencing some ebb and flow as young stars. Tatum boasts the most upside, of course, nearly carrying Boston past LeBron and the Cavs in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. But Tatum’s shot selection has maddened Stevens in spurts during his sophomore season, with reform necessary before April. As the rest of Boston’s supporting cast finds its footing, Hayward could enter the postseason as Irving’s right-hand man if he can produce more performances like Wednesday.
One strong effort won’t land Hayward a parade into Copley Square, though nearly 15 months after a horrific leg injury, such a scoring outburst is cause for celebration. The victory over Minnesota was a reminder of just how effective Hayward can be, a versatile and athletic scorer with playmaking chops to boot. The old Gordon Hayward can still appear. It’s up to Stevens and Irving to make nights like Wednesday the norm.