For the first time on Sunday night, Gordon Hayward played over 27 minutes and punched out at 31:04 against Portland. He’s been under a minutes restriction so that small milestone qualifies as improvement in Hayward’s comeback. Unfortunately, his growing confidence and strength in his ankle haven’t exactly translated on the floor.
Defensively, opposing teams have targeted his limited mobility on switches and pick-and-rolls. On offense, he’s nowhere near his All-Star level from his final season in Utah when he averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists on 47.1% shooting. He understands that he’s a fraction of himself right now, and like every accomplished scorer, vows to continue to shoot his shot:
There’s obviously a little bit of rust and sometimes you just go through those phases. You go through slumps. The shot feels good in practice and looks good and for whatever reason in the game, they’re in and out.”
Still, Hayward knows what he has to do to break out of his slump: Keep shooting confidently and expect the next shot is going to go in.
”Sometimes it gets frustrating, but for me, I’ve played in the league long enough to know you just have to put in the work in practice and shoot with confidence, shoot your way out of it.”
A bigger portion of playing time will now be on the menu for Hayward. However, his modest start this year perhaps belies a harder truth: in Boston’s star-studded starting lineup, he’s been relegated to role player.
Per NBA Stats and Second Spectrum, 43.1% of Hayward’s shoots are catch and shoot opportunities (of which he’s hitting only 29.8%). Two-thirds of his shots are of the open or wide open variety and he’s only hitting 30.6% and 40% respectively of those field goal attempts. Like Hayward alludes to, the makes and misses are that relevant; shooters shoot--even in a slump--and they’ll keep shooting. But if Hayward’s primary role right now is as a spot up shooter, shouldn’t a better shooter be filling in in the meantime? Both Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier have started the season on fire from behind the arc and are plus defenders.
So far, Brad Stevens has insulated Hayward with his fellow starters. Nearly two-thirds of his total minutes played have either come as a starter or with at least three other starters on the floor with him. It’s rare to see Hayward spearhead a second unit as its playmaker. Maybe Stevens’ plan to rehabilitate Hayward is to first get him comfortable with his shot and then work on his ball handling and passing second. Learning to walk before running makes sense.
But there’s an argument to be made that the Celtics should be playing in November like how they want to play in April, May, and June. Hayward was supposed to be the de facto playmaker when Irving was off the floor and we’ve seen glimpses of that. He’s developed a nice chemistry with Terry Rozier on the wing and either Marcus Morris on pick-and-pops or Aron Baynes on pick-and-rolls. The question is, why not just bring him off the bench as a foil for Irving? Increase his career low 18.3 usage rate with the second unit until he’s got his NBA sea legs underneath him.
Part of it could ego and optics. The Celtics didn’t sign Hayward to a max contract to be a sixth man and it would be an overreaction to do so so early in the season. Part of it is just good ol’ fashioned “you play your best players to start the game.” Hayward may not be there yet, but these first two months are all about building chemistry. Yesterday, Hayward was very diplomatic with the prospect of coming off the bench, saying, “for me, I’m happy to be on the court, number one more than anything and, number two, whatever I can do to help us win. I said it before the season, ‘it’s whatever to me.’”
Less than a year ago, Hayward’s rehab included picking up 17 marbles with his toes. Five minutes turned into two and eventually into 24 seconds. That exercise didn’t affect the Celtics in the win column, but the goal then should be the same now: to raise Banner 18. Come playoff time, Hayward will be a starter and he’ll continue to play his way into that position all year. This blip is just another level of the marble game. Keep shooting, shooter.