The narrative around Gordon Hayward is complicated. We are slowly shifting from “when is he going to regain his All Star form?” to “will he ever regain his All Star form?”
On the bright side, he has recovered from his very, very scary and serious ankle injury. He has clearance to play and there have even been moments when he’s looked like his old self. He even completed the alley-oop play that caused the injury in the first place (more of a mental hurdle than a physical one).
On the not-as-bright side, he hasn’t had the same quickness off the dribble, hasn’t always looked comfortable creating contact, and generally hasn’t produced as much or as consistently as we had all hoped. He’s only averaging 10 points a game and has a PER of 14.42 so far.
The complicated part is that nobody really knows how much of that is the lingering effects of recovering from the injury and how much of it is simply playing poorly. He should probably be given the benefit of the doubt for the most part. It was a challenge for him to walk again, never mind play basketball at the highest level.
The closest comparison we can find to his injury and the position he plays on the court is Paul George. The injury George suffered was just as gruesome, but it was his lower leg, not the ankle. George injured himself in August and returned to the court in late February. He wasn’t a particularly effective player for the rest of that season but came back to his All Star form the following year.
Another layer of complexity is Hayward’s role on the Celtics. He was a star in Utah in part because they ran so much of the offense through him by necessity. Things are different in Boston. Everyone seems to be struggling with how to distribute the ball and minutes between so many talented players. Hayward is a natural facilitator but he’s most effective when he’s attacking the rim and looking for his own shots as well.
The thinking was that he would be a flexible do-it-all star that would fill in the gaps wherever the team needed him. Sort of like a wing version of Al Horford. Perhaps that’s what he’ll evolve into if (and when?) he gets more comfortable on his leg. But is that enough for what the Celtics need from him? What if he never fully recovers his All Star form? What if he’s only ever going to be 80% of what he once was? Or only 50%?
I don’t think you could say outright that he’s playing poorly. He’s usually making good basketball decisions and facilitating the offense for the 2nd unit. He fills up the box scores with other contributions. In short, he’s a solid rotation guy making max money right now.
You won’t find anyone that would question Gordon’s work ethic or his desire to become the best basketball player he can be. By all accounts everyone really likes the guy (well, except for some jilted fans in Utah) and wants him to succeed. The Celtics sure looked excited for him when he completed that alley-oop. But somewhere in the back of everyone’s mind is a nagging question of if he’ll ever get there.
If the Celtics want to run through the gauntlet of the top Eastern Conference teams for a spot in the NBA Finals, they’ll probably need Hayward to be closer to his peak than he is playing at lately.