Utah Jazz standout Gordon Hayward reminds me of John Havlicek in style, intangibles and skills more than any other player in recent years since the Celtic legend retired in 1978.
Shortly after Havlicek burst on the scene to become a star, almost every NBA team was looking to add a versatile 6-foot-5 swingman of its own.
Identical twins Dick and Tom Van Arsdale, Jeff Mullins, Jerry Sloan, Jon McGlocklin, Bill Bradley, Lou Hudson and Don Kojis were all contemporary All-Stars who excelled playing small forward and guard at 6-foot-5 or so during Hondo's 16-season career from 1962-78.
Mike Riordan, the uber-athletic Keith Erickson, and Dick Snyder were other somewhat comparable contemporaries of Hondo. Later in his career, mid-to-late 1970s swingmen like the underrated Bob Gross and four-time, 6-foot-6 All-Star Doug Collins (whose idol was Havlicek) became other standouts who were similar to Hondo but did not quite possess his unique package of skills, tenacity, intangibles, durability and athleticism.
None of them were as good as Havlicek, with three-time All-Star Dick Van Arsdale and the injury-plagued Collins, who played guard almost exclusively, probably coming closest to John's high level of play.
In the 1978 All-Star Game, knowing it was his boyhood idol's final season, Collins graciously gave up his East starting spot to the retiring Havlicek. Hondo was actually older by a few years than East head coach and Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, yet he was still playing at a high level at age 37.
John averaged 16.1 points, four rebounds and four assists a game in his final season, playing all 82 games at 34 minutes per night, often in his old sixth-man role. He scored 10 points in that 13th and final All-Star Game.
A few years after he retired, Hondo lamented, "If I had known this Bird kid was coming along, I would have played a few more years." And he probably could have continued at a high level as sixth man again.
Now, fast forward over three decades after Hondo's retirement, to when Gordon Hayward entered the NBA in 2010 after leading Butler to within a narrowly missed halfcourt three-pointer at the buzzer of beating Duke in the NCAA finals.
The similarities between Havlicecek and Hayward are striking. At 6-foot-8, Hoosier native Hayward was a multi-sport standout like Hondo, who was a first team all-stater in football, basketball and baseball in Ohio.
Hayward was a top tennis player in Indiana, and he possesses the great lateral movement that tennis helps produce—a true asset on defense in hoops.
Both men are swingmen who defend well, pass extremely well, can handle the ball and easily move to the backcourt. Both are good (but not great) shooters who can drive and get to the foul line, where they shoot at just over 80 percent. Both are fine athletic runners who make those around them better.
Both hail from the heartland, and each surname begins with an H. Their birthdays are only 15 days apart, and both are an Aries. John was picked seventh overall in the 1962 draft; Hayward went ninth in 2010.
Hayward is arguably the most underrated all-around player in the NBA today. Havlicek is arguably the most underrated all-around superstar in NBA history.
Each player excels at the lost art of moving without the ball, and their intangibles are excellent. Hayward is an extremely smart player and a tough competitor, as was Havlicek. Gordon has a nose for the ball and is an expert at coming up with loose balls. Both were talented players who hustle and run the floor very well. Both leap pretty well and finish well in transition.
Like Hondo, Hayward can go one on one but is a very smart team player first. Like John, Gordon is a humble, clean-cut guy yet a fierce competitor. Each is very unassuming and quietly determined.
Each player got to the NCAA title game as a sophomore, although Hondo's team won it all while Hayward's Butler squad came up just short, 61-59. Ironically, Havlicek's Ohio State team made it back to the title game his junior and senior years and lost to Cincinnati while Butler made a Cinderella run to the finals in what was Hayward's junior season and lost to UConn.
Through six NBA seasons, Hayward has averaged 14.6 points, four rebounds and 3.4 assists a game. He has shot 44 percent from the field and 81.5 percent at the foul line over 30.8 minutes a contest in that span. In his last two seasons, he upped those numbers to 19.5 points, five rebounds and four assists a game.
In Hondo's first four pro seasons through age 25, he averaged just under 18 points, six rebounds and three assists a game while shooting about 42 percent from the field and 77 percent at the charity stripe in nearly 30 minutes a night.
Over Hayward's four seasons from age 22 through 25, his stats are even closer to Hondo's: just under 18 points, five rebounds and over four assists a game, along with solid defense.
In college, Hayward averaged 14.4 ppg on a little over nine shots per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 82.4 percent at the foul line. He also pulled down 7.4 rebounds a night.
In Havlicek's three-year college career, he averaged 14.6 ppg, 8.6 rebounds and shot 50.8 percent from the floor plus 73 percent from the foul line. Pretty similar.
I am not saying Hayward is as good as all-time great Havlicek, a true top tier Hall of Famer and member of the 50 Greatest NBA Players list. John was a little more athletic and a better defender, as well as a slightly better mid-range shooter.
Growing up with the three-pointer that Havlicek never had the chance to utilize, Hayward might be a little better long-distance shooter. No one ran more relentlessly than Havlicek.
"We had to tell John to slow down in practice, he was making us look bad," Bill Russell would recall after he retired.
But their careers and styles are similarly well-rounded, and Gordon is still only 25 with his best years ahead of him to make a lasting mark of high achievement.
Beyond all their statistical and appearance-oriented similarities, it is the way they play, their similar positions and their humble, quietly determined and stolid personalities that really make Hayward and Hondo alike.
Each player is clutch at both ends of the court and doesn’t back down from the big play at the end. John made dozens of big shots over his long career. But perhaps the play he is most remembered for was his steal at the end of game seven in the 1965 Eastern finals vs. the 76ers that preserved a one-point win and sent Boston into the Finals, where they won a seventh consecutive crown.
Hayward has already authored some big end-of-game moments, but his have not come in the playoffs yet. He swished a step back 22-footer at the buzzer to beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers 102-100 on November 5, 2014.
Late in his rookie season on April 5, 2011 Hayward showed his mettle under fire against the defending champion Lakers at Staples Center. He stopped a healthy Kobe cold twice in a row in the final minute in one-on-one isolation situations with great footwork, smarts and competitiveness.
Then the 21-year old drove to the basket, hit a clutch free throw for his 22nd point and broke a tie to clinch an 86-85 Utah win over the 55-22 Lakers.
Even Bryant praised Hayward's defense after the game, where he helped hold Kobe to just 6-of-18 shooting from the field.
Gordon has a long way to go to approach Havlicek's tapestry of late-game heroics, but he has shown a penchant for making big plays late in games. And he doesn't shy way from attempting them, much like Havlicek. Even if they field, they came back the next time to take the big shot, make the key pass or the game-saving stop.
Hondo always wanted to make the big play at the end. Due to playing on a much lesser team, Hayward simply hasn't had the chance to make those clutch plays on the biggest stage.
Hayward has been playing at an All-Star level the past two seasons but has not been recognized as such due to playing in the league's smallest market for a non-playoff team in a Western Conference laden with top forwards.
Had Gordon been picked in the 2010 draft by a team in the weaker East, he would have played in the mid-season classic for certain by now. Interestingly, his hometown Pacers possessed the 10th pick in the draft that year, and Larry Bird expressed keen interest in his fellow Hoosier, but Utah tantalizingly selected Gordon one pick ahead of him with selection number nine.
If Hayward had played in Chicago, New York or Boston, he would be a household name by now, certainly among even casual basketball fans.
Since Havlicek retired, the only players who remind me of Hondo before Hayward came along were Collins (whose career was cut short in the early 1980s by severe foot and knee injuries) and Jim Paxson.
Paxson, who became a Celtic late in his career when he was unfortunately limited by back injuries, was a multiple-time All-Star for Portland in 1983/84 after a standout career at Dayton.
Like Hondo he was from Ohio, very smart (his dad and brother John played in the NBA, and both brothers have gone on to become NBA general managers), and—most strikingly similar to Havlicek—he excelled at moving without the ball. In fact, Jim Paxson probably moved without the ball better than anyone in the NBA since Hondo and the uber-quick, pencil-thin Collins.
And now Hayward could step into those big shoes if Boston acquires him. He just dislocated a finger on his left hand and will be out a month or so, but this should not deter Boston from pulling the trigger on a deal to get his services. If anything, it might make it easier for Utah to deal him now.
His spacing, high basketball IQ, excellent intangibles and well-rounded skill set would take the Celtics to the next level. He makes his teammates better while remaining an outstanding individual player, like Hondo and another Hoosier Celtic legend. His good shooting, ability to penetrate and pass well and unselfishly would open the sluggish Celtic offense up. And he is a fine player in transition.
I was surprised when Boston did not make a serious run at Hayward over a year ago when he became a free agent, especially given Boston's need for a player like him—and particularly since he played for Celtic mentor Brad Stevens at Butler, a fellow Indianapolis native.
Perhaps the price tag was too high then as Charlotte attempted to sign Hayward to a huge deal before the Jazz matched it. But now if Boston wants to make that jump to number two in the East, they have to get a top small forward/two guard.
A young Hayward heading into his prime fits that bill perfectly. His versatility, skills and unselfish style—like Hondo—plus his familiarity with coach Stevens would allow him to fit in well and seamlessly with Boston.
Who could they trade for him that Utah would want? It would have to be a package of players and draft picks to get the Jazz to part with its best (and highest-paid) player as he enters his peak years.
Perhaps a combination of Marcus Smart or Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk and a good draft pick would entice Utah, which appears to be on the verge of a playoff berth this season, to deal Hayward.
There is a large gap between the Cavaliers and the second-best team in the East. If Boston could add Hayward, they would ascend to that second spot and be a good shooting big guard away from challenging them for conference supremacy.
Danny Ainge has been stockpiling players and draft picks for a while without hitting a home-run transaction, and the time to strike is now. Al Horford was a good addition, but Boston needs more talent to scare Cleveland and surpass Toronto.
If he doesn't make a move for such a rare player and fit as Hayward, Boston will continue to hover around a distant third or fourth seed at best in a mediocre East.
Gordon Hayward would be the perfect addition to get the Celtics to the next level and would represent the Boston brand and Celtic tradition superbly. He may not be as great as Hondo, but he has the chance to be close if he continues to develop as he has so far in his young and impressive career.
Heck, he even wears one of the few lower numbers Boston hasn't retired yet (20). And if they get him in Celtic green at age 25, I wouldn't be surprised if his #20 is hanging from the rafters 15 years or so from now.
To contact author Cort Reynolds directly, you can email him at email@example.com.