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Checking in on Gordon Hayward’s return

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It’s been over a month since the All-Star made his return to the Celtics. How has he looked, and how much further does he need to go?

Detroit Pistons v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

On September 28, Gordon Hayward finally reached the end of his long road back to the NBA. In the Celtics’ preseason debut against the Charlotte Hornets, a full 346 days after the horrific leg injury that cost him the entire 2017-18 season, Hayward finally took the court in Celtics’ green. While rehab may have been the hard part, he now faces a new challenge: transforming himself from “guy who hasn’t played basketball in a year” back into the All-Star that the Celtics paid $128 million two off seasons ago.

We’ve known all along that Hayward’s return would be a process. Now, over a month out from that debut and with ten regular season games under his belt, we’re starting to get a sense of just what kind of process that might be. Here’s a look at the early returns from Hayward’s comeback: what he’s done well, and where he still needs to improve in.

We’ll start with the stats. Thus far, Hayward is shooting 40% from the field and 32% from behind the three-point arc, scoring 10 points, grabbing six boards, dishing two assists and attempting two free throws per game. On a game-to-game basis, he’s been inconsistent; he’s had a couple standout performances — notably, 18 points against the Milwaukee Bucks — as well as some games where he was more or less invisible such as a 1-of-5 dud against the Thunder. Per 100 possessions, the Celtics have been a modest 1.6 points better with Hayward on the floor, but the offense has struggled to the tune of a 99.4 offensive rating in those minutes.

The numbers also suggest that Hayward’s conditioning isn’t quite all the way back yet. Brad Stevens has kept him on a strict 25-minute limit through the beginning of the season, and for good reason, as he doesn’t seem ready to go 30+ minutes a night just yet. Though it is an admittedly small sample size overall, he’s shot only 15-of-47 (31%) in second halves of games, a sharp contrast to his 20-of-40 mark in first halves. The fourth quarter has been particularly brutal, as he’s shooting only 29% and posted some of his sloppiest plays of the season.

None of this is particularly surprising. By and large, these numbers tell us exactly what we’d expect: this is a player working to get himself back into form after a long layoff, battling rust and soreness along the way. When we turn to the tape, we start to see where specifically Hayward has struggled and why there’s reason for optimism going forward.

We start on the offensive end, where Hayward has traditionally provided most of his value throughout his career and where he’s arguably been his worst to open the year.

The most immediate thing you’ll notice is that his three-pointers simply haven’t been falling. Hayward has been a standout shooter since his time at Butler (though a little more inconsistent on a year-to-year basis than you might expect), and his 32% mark from deep is notably weaker than his career 37% rate, especially coming off the best shooting season of his career with Utah in 2016-17.

That said, the attempts he’s been taking from distance have largely been good ones. Nearly 40% of his shots have been three-pointers labeled as either “open” or “wide open,” which actually far exceeds his 28% mark in 2016-17. He’s converted on only 32% of those attempts, contrasting a 40% rate in his All-Star season. In catch-and-shoot situations, he’s shooting only 30% from behind the arc — in 2016, he shot 39%. In other words, he’s too skilled a shooter for that not to improve, and the fact that he’s getting plenty of looks like this is a positive for the Celtics.

Elsewhere, things are a little more complicated. Hayward is shooting just 58% at the rim (19 total attempts), way down from his very nice career high of 69% set in 2016. At the free throw line, his 1.7 attempts per game ranks as far and away his lowest rate since his rookie season. Both of these indicate a lack of aggressiveness when it comes to putting the ball on the floor, and he often looks either a step too slow or a beat too uncertain or both when attacking the rim.

It seems like Hayward is still very tentative about taking contact when driving into traffic, perhaps because he isn’t ready to trust his body to hold up to the physicality. He often either bails on the drive early, pulling up for a jumper (though he has been effective on pull-ups from the elbows) or slowing down too much and giving his defenders a better chance at contesting the shot.

After the comeback win against the Thunder, I discussed how a team-wide lack of aggressiveness put the Celtics into their first-half hole. This was especially true of Hayward himself; one particular second-quarter drive stood out where Hayward penetrated into the paint and didn’t appear to even consider putting a shot up. Perhaps this was by design, but the defense doesn’t have to stay honest if there’s no threat of him shooting.

While his shooting is likely to fix itself before long, his issues off the dribble isn’t quite so simple. Hayward has to rebuild confidence in his rebuilt ankle, and there’s no trick to accomplishing that. There has been tangible progress, though; in recent games, he’s been looking quite a bit more spry. Check out this finish against Detroit that looks straight out of his Jazz days:

He’s even been airing out for dunks here and there!

What’s more: when Hayward doesn’t have the ball, he’s moved quite a bit more decisively, maneuvering well around off-ball screens and finding seams in the defense. He just knows how to get himself open. His first-quarter alley-oop against the Nuggets was a masterclass in this sort of movement, as he completely discombobulates poor Juan Hernangomez with a lightning-quick cut.

In his nine NBA seasons, Hayward hasn’t really built much of a reputation on the defensive side of the ball, with the general consensus falling more along the lines of “yeah, he’s solid, I guess.” He has merely acceptable size for a wing player, standing 6’8” with an unimpressive equal 6’8” wingspan, and he’s divined most of his defensive value from his basketball IQ. He’s certainly no defensive anchor, but he gives you some options and doesn’t take anything off the table. In other words, Hayward is celery is to your calorie count.

It’s interesting, then, that in his early return to the court, much of his value has seemingly come as a defender. The Celtics have posted a defensive rating of 97.8 with Hayward on the court — better than Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and Marcus Morris — and his defensive box plus/minus of +2.0 vastly outpaces his previous best (+0.1), per Basketball Reference.

Hayward might not have noteworthy length, but you wouldn’t know it from watching him play so far this season. His feel for passing lanes and positioning puts him in good position to create turnovers, as evidenced by his four-steal performance in the season opener against Philadelphia — all four of which came on Sixers’ passes. Though he piles up steals at a roughly average rate (1.3 per 36 minutes this season), he makes them count, as his passing ability can create quick fast breaks in the opposite direction.

With Hayward replacing Aron Baynes in the starting lineup this season, the Celtics’ defense has shifted towards the switchy versatility everyone imagined from them to begin with. Some thought this might lead to defensive regression; Baynes was a significant standout after all, and a much better matchup against larger front courts than Horford alone. This hasn’t turned out to be the case, however; the Celtics have the best defensive rating in the league through their first 11 games.

Hayward has been crucial to this. He’s the exact kind of switchable wing Stevens wants manning the perimeter of his starting lineup. Even as he’s not in perfect shape, he has the quickness to keep up with guards like Malcolm Brogdon...

...and the strength to hold his own against bigs like Domantas Sabonis.

This versatility will continue to be a core tenant of the Boston defense going forward. Virtually all of their most important defenders have the ability to defend multiple positions, and Hayward is no exception. He may not have the standout athleticism of Jaylen Brown or the prodigious length of Jayson Tatum, but his all-around package complements both extremely well.

Ultimately, Hayward hasn’t exactly been “good” thus far this season, but he has been encouraging. The simple fact is that, rationally, we expected all these problems, and there haven’t been any concerns that were really unforeseen. The defense has been a nice positive, but I’d expect it to regress a little bit the rest off the way — which won’t hurt all that much when he finally hits his offensive stride. Tonight, he’ll take yet another encouraging step forward in his recovery, likely appearing in his first back-to-back of the young season in, of all places, Utah. He’s on the right track, and as continues to improve, so too will the Boston Celtics.