In 2017, his last season in Utah, Gordon Hayward became the league’s most unlikely high-flier. He finished 68 dunks in 72 games played, cramming alley oops, dunks in traffic, and flushes in transitioning, almost exclusively jumping off two feet and finishing with both hands. The scrawny kid with a bowl cut from Brownsburg, Indiana couldn’t stop dunking on everyone.
Only ten non-centers dunked more than Hayward that season. But after his dislocated ankle and fractured tibia, Hayward has become largely a below-the-rim player. In his Player’s Tribune docuseries, he admitted he “won’t be the same player.”
“I think something of that magnitude changes you as a player,” Hayward said. “Does that mean that I’m not going to be able to get to the same level or better than I was? Absolutely not.”
In 2019, Hayward is averaging 14 points, 3.4 rebound and 4 assists in 25 minutes per game while shooting over 50% from the field and nearly 40% from deep. He’s a member of the Celtics’ best lineup and has been a key cog in high-profile games against Toronto, Indiana and Minnesota by taking a more aggressive approach in finding teammates within the flow of the offense, posting up mismatches, and finishing in the paint.
He’s still not the same player as 2017 All-Star Hayward — and he may never reach his athletic apex again — but he’s getting there.
This is likely the area of Hayward’s game that he’s needed the most adjusting. Since he’s used to getting into the lane and finishing with dunks — and that’s not an option at the moment — he’s had to resort to flip shots and floaters more often, shots he’s certainly not as comfortable with.
This year, he’s shooting 29% of his shots inside ten feet from the basket and converting at a 58% rate. Those numbers are down from 2017, but only slightly when 32% of his shots came from close range and he scored 64% of the time (NBA.com). Even so, he’s developing some nifty moves to create space over rim-protectors in the paint.
It seems like Hayward has more success driving left by ripping through and making his first step with his right leg, the one he didn’t injure.
Since Hayward knows his finishing isn’t where it used to be, he’s adjusted by taking more short-range jumpers in the lane. He’ll often beat his defender and keep him on his hip with patience before rising up for an easy jumper. That shot is becoming automatic for him.
Here, he gets Justise Winslow to bite on a pump fake and sinks the ten-foot jumper because Hassan Whiteside doesn’t step up.
When Hayward’s in the game, the Celtics like to initiate the offense with him on the left elbow, where he catches an entry pass and curls into a pick and roll with Al Horford on the right high post. Since Hayward’s (anecdotally) had more success going to the basket with his left, Boston may want to flip this action, so Hayward can catch and run pick and roll down the left half of the lane.
Another aspect of his offensive game he’s resorted to while dealing with getting his footing back is the post. The Celtics offense generates a ton of mismatches, and Hayward has had success posting up smaller guards.
Against Portland, Hayward had success shooting over their smaller guards. He didn’t even need to make a move in the post against Lillard, he just turned and shot:
Again, he finds a mismatch with Toronto’s Delon Wright and uses his body to get position and create an easy shot. Instantly, Hayward catches the entry pass and turns over his left shoulder for a baseline fadeaway.
Hayward doesn’t need elite leaping ability to turn and drain fadeaways in the post. These are the type of shots Hayward should continue to feature.
Posting up is still a very limited action for Hayward, he only averages a post up every other game (he shoots 50% in the post, per NBA.com tracking). Still, it could be a weapon the Celtics go to more in the second half of the season. When Irving’s on the bench and Hayward’s leading the second unit, Boston should experiment with Hayward posting up mismatches more often.
One of the things Hayward didn’t lose with his freak injury was his mind. He’s a really, really smart basketball player: he cuts when his defender puts his hands on his knees, turns good shots into great shots with extra passes and fills the lane in transition.
Hayward’s always under control and throws ambitious passes. At 6’8, he can see over defenses and find passing lanes many other players can’t. His 4.9 assists per 36 minutes are the second-highest in his career.
Here, in semi-transition, Hayward navigates the pick and roll while the defense is on its heels because he decided to push the ball up the court. Obviously, Nikola Vucevic isn’t a defensive beast in the paint, but finding Horford with a nifty wraparound bounce pass requires vision and creativity.
Some of Hayward’s most impressive passes have come in the pick and roll, where he reads the defense and flings cross-court bullets to open shooters on the weak side. As soon as he senses Devin Harris take one too many steps into help position, Hayward’s able to find Semi Ojeleye in the corner.
For many games in the beginning of the season, many fans would groan because Hayward didn’t look for his shot enough, instead setting up his teammates. Now, he’s found a better mix of scoring and playmaking. The Celtics are at their best when the ball’s whipping around the perimeter and players are attacking closeouts, and Hayward is a big part of that.