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Gordon Hayward is back in form

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The max-contract Celtics forward is free from his minutes restriction, ready to do whatever the team needs to win.

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

What does an NBA team get when they give a player a max contract? It may be custom to assume that max money means high points per game or flashy counting stats.

But that isn’t always what a team needs. And that’s not who Gordon Hayward is.

The Boston Celtics forward has solid career numbers: 15.5 PPG, 3.4 AST, 44.3 FG%, and 36.6 3FG%. He earned his current contract on the back of his best season yet (2016-17 in Utah), when all those marks were a good bit higher.

But Boston is a different team than the 2016-17 Jazz. The Celtics don’t need a score-first ace when they can lean on Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum. They need a Swiss Army knife type of player: A 6’8” wing who can defend four positions, hit tough shots, and most importantly, run the show. Brad Stevens has consistently referred to Hayward as the team’s “jack-of-all-trades.”

Watch this play at least three times to catch Hayward’s body language as he reads the floor. Any coach or fan would be thrilled with the baseline result: A wing who reads the miss, grabs the board, pushes the ball up the middle, reads the defense on the break, and makes the right pass.

Cue in on this clip right as Hayward hits the space in between the half-court circle and the top of the arc. The Toronto Raptor’s Kyle Lowry is dropping into position at the foul line, with shot-blocker Serge Ibaka pivoting to close down the lane and make a play at the rim. Hayward forces Lowry and Ibaka to keep backpedaling by driving in past the foul line. Then—in anticipation of the rest of the Raptors racing to help—he looks back over his shoulder to pull the transition defenders behind the play out of the paint. That second look freezes the entire defense, while Hayward throws the no-look bounce pass to Tatum for the wide open corner three.

That’s Boston Celtics’ money well-spent.

After playing the first 12 games under a minutes restriction, Celtics coach Brad Stevens is playing Hayward wherever he thinks the creative wing can help give them an edge. In the past week, Hayward’s enjoyed long stretches at the primary ballhandler with the second unit. He even volunteered to come off the bench if it would help.

“I was told [Hayward] was off the minute restriction so I played who I thought gave us the best chance of winning...I didn’t realize he had gotten to 39,” Stevens told the Providence Journal after the Celtics’ win against Toronto.

It’s this kind of extended run and added responsibility that’ll allow Hayward to keep moving forward as he continues to adjust this season. He needs more time in the flow of the game to get his shots to fall—more than any other offensive stat, his FG% stands out as an indicator that he hasn’t returned to All-Star form.

But in the meantime, Hayward’s ability to lead the Celtics offense gives the team a whole new set of angles to attack from. Just in the last three games he’s gotten even more comfortable making point guard-like passes, both in the half-court set and on the break.

Kyrie Irving isn’t the only Celtics passer who can play the two-man game with Al Horford to get the big man his favorite top-of-the-key three. Watch him break down the Chicago Bulls defense:

Check out the timing on this left-handed pocket pass. Zach LaVine is enough of an athlete to scramble past Horford and reach a hand into the lane, but Hayward passes right in the tiniest window ahead of LaVine can paw at the pass and while the rookie Wendell Carter Jr. is still deciding how to react.

Hayward’s playmaking can level up even more. Watch him suck three out of five (almost four for a split second at the beginning of the play) Jazz defenders onto him.

Baynes, growing ever fonder of his own awkward-yet-effective, three-point shot clears back behind the arc as Hayward spins into the defense. Hayward sees Baynes out of the corner of his eye and sends the no-look back to the Australian big man. The pass itself could’ve been crisper and hit Baynes in the numbers, but with most of the Jazz worried about Hayward heading to the rack or dishing to a cutting Irving for an easy layup, this backhand scoop pass is more than serviceable; the timing is excellent.

Hayward is bringing more than his offensive prowess to the floor. As he’s found his footing, he’s begun to stick like glue to his assignments, switch effortlessly, and make the right rotations. Watch him step in as the help defender at the rim and rip the ball away from a driving Joe Ingles.

The coda here is even better. After reading the Ingles drive and securing the steal, Hayward rockets up the center of the court and snags another assist.

(Editor’s note: Rudy Gobert’s business managers were not a fan of the above decision.)

The uptick in Hayward’s confidence and court awareness is visible as the season reaches the quarter pole. And though his field goal attempts are irregular, no one is asking Hayward to be a high volume shooter. Instead, Hayward is fast becoming a very viable playmaker and, the more teams scout his passing, the more he should start finding himself at the rim for an easy bucket.

Sometimes—especially when a player suffers a gruesome injury—teams need to wait a little while for their max contract investments to pay off. Gordon Hayward is already showing the Celtics his worth. And his ceiling is a lot higher.