Before Isaiah Thomas joined the Celtics, he was just considered a change-of-pace combo guard with a checkered past as a locker room cancer. He was the perfect sixth-man candidate, a waterbug who could score in bunches, but because of his limited size, not necessarily starter material in this league. However, in less than two seasons of Brad Stevens encouraging Isaiah to be Isaiah, Thomas has become a legit MVP candidate and one of the best clutch scorers in the league. Stevens’s Midas touch with Thomas is the highlight of reclamation projects that included Jordan Crawford, Evan Turner, and to some extent, Avery Bradley.
This fall, Stevens will turn his attention to his former Butler Bulldog, Gordon Hayward. After seamlessly integrating Al Horford and turning him into the prototypical big man in his offense, Stevens will now have what could be his ideal wing in Hayward. In his first All-Star season under head coach Quin Snyder, Hayward averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists.
For Stevens, those numbers are irrelevant. What’s important is how versatile Hayward will be for the Celtics. When asked about Hayward’s utility, Stevens gushed that Hayward could be a primary ball handler or play off of Isaiah Thomas and fill in at the 1, 2, 3, and sometimes 4. He’s a complete player that can score from anywhere on the floor despite drawing a lot of opposing defenses’ attention. Hayward’s attack is varied, but he’s equally effective with or without the ball in his hands.
Gordon Hayward Play Types
Maybe since Jae Crowder bristled at the idea of Celtics fans cheering for Hayward in his last visit to Boston in a Jazz uniform, many predicted that Hayward would “replace” Crowder and Crowder’s role in the offense. Yet, as CBS Sports’ Matt Moore points out, Crowder is the more effective off-ball player:
What happens off the ball is surprising because Hayward is not an upgrade over Jae Crowder. Crowder had a 53.3 effective field goal percentage on jump shots last season, via Synergy Sports, while Hayward shot 49.2 percent. Crowder and Hayward each shot 56 percent in catch-and-shoot situations. Hayward is a great cutter, in the 85th percentile, but Crowder is better -- in the 95th. Their profile is similar in those situations.
Despite playing similar positions, Crowder is more of a 3&D player whose offense is predicated on other players creating opportunities for him, whereas Hayward can create for himself and be a playmaker for others. His play calls will probably look more like Avery Bradley’s, but he’ll be expected to do more with his touches because, frankly, he can. In Utah, they ran a lot of pin-down screens, curl action, and dribble hand-offs to create space for Hayward just like Stevens did for Bradley.
For the most part, Bradley was primarily a jump shooter coming off these actions. To his credit, he showed flashes as an improved passer early in the year, but that faded as the season progressed. Compared to Hayward, their splits are eerily similar: both shot nearly 40% from behind the arc and made enough 2s for an eFG% around 53%. However, the biggest difference is Hayward’s ability as a playmaker. One Eastern Conference scout told CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith:
"They can run the same actions they ran with Bradley, but with more options. Sets would be run for Bradley to get a shot. If that shot wasn't there, the set fell apart, because Bradley can't create off the counter. Hayward can. So, what you might see is them run a set that looks like a shot for Hayward, but in reality they want him to get it to pass to another action happening somewhere else on the floor. It will open up the offense quite a bit."
You can see Hayward’s potential in that last clip where he curls off the Rudy Gobert screen, dribbles into the paint, engages a retreating DeAndre Jordan, and pulls up for the 15-footer. He cans the mid-range shot there, but it’s that ability to operate in tight spaces, keep his dribble alive, and attract defenders that makes him another multi-functional threat for Stevens.
All summer, we’ve been hearing about how Jayson Tatum could be the second coming of Paul Pierce, but it’s really Hayward that fits that bill, at least for now. Like Pierce, Hayward isn’t exceptionally quick or athletic, but they’re both big, strong forwards who, because of their size and skill, can play at their own speed and be very patient on floor.
For example, here are two Jazz actions that the Celtics utilize as well. Whether it’s a DHO into a second screen or a double pick where the ball handler can hit the pop guy or roller, Hayward is the primary decision maker.
He’s a willing passer, and at 6’8” he can see over defenses and find angles that just weren’t there for Bradley. Another scout from the Western Conference told Keith:
"Bradley is fine as a ball mover, but he's not a playmaker. So playing IT off the ball with Bradley as the main playmaker, didn't work. If you look, IT got his off the ball points off transition mostly. If they came in the halfcourt, they came from Horford or Smart. Hayward can make plays with the ball for himself and others. So, IT can play off the ball and take advantage of some of the best screen setters in the game in Horford, Baynes, Morris, etc. That will get him a bunch of points. Wouldn't surprise me to see Hayward average over 5 assists per game, as he sets up others."
He won’t blow by defenders or mesmerize opposing teams with his handle, but he can instantly read a defense, diagnose where the help is coming from, and hit the right guy with the right pass. Here’s an I-formation that both teams run to trigger switches between the circles. In both cases, Hayward and Marcus Smart find the open flare man for an uncontested 3.
Here’s a similar look with Hayward and now Terry Rozier using the screens to get their own shot. Rozier zips by Cory Joseph for an easy layup while Hayward opts for an easy pull-up.
The national media already loves the fit. FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring has a thorough overview of Hayward as one of the NBA's most "organic" scorers and a perfect cog for the Celtics’ motion offense. The Sporting News' Scott Rafferty goes into detail about the potential symbiotic relationship between Hayward, Thomas, and Horford and how each can make the others on the team better.
At his presser, Hayward was asked what Stevens and Ainge told him about his future role on the team and how he could help them get to the next level. Hayward replied, “being a playmaker, trying to make some plays to get other people shots to help us spread the attack around...I can start the offense, play with the ball, without the ball.” He called Stevens “a genius” when it comes to maximizing players’ strengths and figuring out how that all fits into the team scheme. Since the addition of Hayward, it’s a puzzle that Stevens admits that he thinks about “every minute of every day.”
It’s still only July though. We’re two months away from training camp, and there are still unanswered questions about this roster. Will Hayward start the game at SF or as a big two-guard next to IT or even as a small-ball 4? Who takes the last shot in a close game? Do Hayward, Thomas, and Horford form a new Big Three? However, these aren’t issues of uncertainty. They highlight the influx of versatility with Boston’s revamped roster in large part due to Hayward’s arrival.