It’s still painful to think about.
The first five minutes of the opener between the Celtics and Cavaliers had an exciting vibe. After watching the Celtics get beaten down to a pulp in the previous Eastern Conference Finals, they stepped out on the court and looked like they belonged against the Cavaliers. The teams were circling each other, two future heavyweights trying to see what the other was made of, and then it happened.
Hayward goes up for an alley-oop, and the end of any real title aspirations vanished. By now, we’re all familiar with the inspiring resiliency the Celtics team showed. They won 16 straight, racked up some improbable wins by sheer will and grit, Irving showed he could be the man on a very good team, and even as the injuries continued to pile up higher and higher, the Celtics benefited from an unexpected surge of young talent. When the smoke cleared, Celtics fans got to proudly pronounce that even though they lost in the conference finals, the fact that made it this far without Hayward was proof that we were set to take the East by storm. However, that still hasn’t stopped the whispers of wondering whether our young wings have already leapfrogged Hayward. It’s a prisoner of the moment take, but it also highlights the lack of familiarity some fans may have with Hayward since he spent his entire career playing for a small-market team in a different conference. Now feels like a great time to re-introduce the fan base to All-Star forward Gordon Hayward.
As a high school freshman, Hayward’s career looked more like he was on track to be a guard. He stood at 5’11” as a freshman with an expectancy grow to only 6’2”. To compensate for lack of height, his father worked with him to develop skills as guard such as ball-handling, outside shooting, and facilitating. Hayward ended up sprouting to 6’8 by his senior year but those crucial years ended being formative into what separates Hayward as an elite wing today.
In his last year in Utah, Hayward averaged 21.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, and 3.5 apg on 47.1/39.8/84.4 shooting. The best way to describe Hayward is an all-purpose forward who’s elite skill, or “superpower”, is the fact that he has no weaknesses in his game. He is the prototypical player that championship teams are built around.
Hayward grew up in a crisp Jazz offense that ran a lot of “Flex” offense, which brought out the best of his decision-making. Though the offense is slow in progression, it’s high in passing and off-ball movement. Within it, Hayward showed an ability to make passes on the move and over defenses with his 6’8” frame. Though he isn’t an elite isolation scorer, he’s excellent at using isolation possessions to collapse the defense and find shooters.
As a scorer, Hayward has the full package. He can score in the post in mismatch situations; he can shoot spotting up, off the move, or pulling up. In 2017, he shot 41.7% on pull-up threes, 39.1% on spot-up looks, and 69.1% at the rim to top it all off.
One of his most underrated offensive skills is his off-ball movement. Hayward is an assist magnet because of his ability to read angles and make timely cuts and his ability to relocate into passing pockets for his teammates.
Surrounded by talented offensive weapons like Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford who attract multiple defenders, Hayward could end up being a beneficiary of many easy looks based on his heady plays.
Defensively, Hayward is a prototypical team defender. As we’ve discussed previously, no publicly available data tells you much about a player’s individual defense because so much of good defense is about deterrence. That means any of the meaningful analysis regarding a player’s defense will have its roots in game tape.
With that being said, the tape is positive. Hayward is a strong positional defender that won’t have many of the highlight steals or blocks (that are usually outweighed by bad gambling), but he’s a hard-working individual defender that gets over screens, stays in front of his man, contests well, and rarely makes errors when making rotations. The Jazz maintained a 102.4 defensive rating when Hayward was on the floor, which was right in line with their 3rd-ranked defensive in the 2016-17 season.
Hayward will be a very welcome addition to a Celtics team who struggled offensively for most of the year. There’s been a lot of talk as of late regarding “how” all of the Celtics core was going to be able to co-exist with the recent rises of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Hayward’s diverse game provides an avenue to do so. The Celtics already have plans to have him as the lead ball-handler with the team’s second unit that struggled all year to score consistently. He’ll also be a key cog in a closing five lineup that will feature Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford. While players like Brown and Tatum still work to find themselves offensively, Hayward and Horford will have significant roles as the glue pieces that help the team’s offensive identity fit together. It could mean giving up a few shot attempts in the process, but he’ll still put up box-score numbers that the average fans will respect. It’ll be a long summer, but when Hayward comes back, they’ll be no more questioning him as Boston’s most complete player.