The whispers started well before this year even began. They came from teammates and onlookers, as the hushed murmurs made their rounds and grew louder with every offseason workout Gordon Hayward participated in.
Even Enes Kanter tried to clue-in everybody on what he saw from his new colleague, who according to the veteran big man was getting ready to “shock the world.”
But for Hayward, now in his third year with the Celtics and two seasons removed from a gruesome leg injury that wiped out all but five minutes of his inaugural campaign with the C’s, there was a sense that results needed to be seen first and sustained as fans clung with hope to the phrase – he’s back – that has been associated with Hayward ever since his injury.
Turns out, all those whispers foreshadowed what was to come at the outset of this season as through the first four games, Hayward does indeed look like he has returned to his true form.
Wednesday night’s 116-105 win over the Milwaukee Bucks was more evidence of Hayward resembling the All-Star forward he was in his final season with the Utah Jazz. Hayward did a little of everything as the C’s climbed out of a 19-point hole with Hayward flirting with a triple-double by compiling 21 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists.
According to Celtics stats, this was Hayward’s first 20-point, 10-rebound game as a member of the Celtics – the last time he accomplished that feat came on Dec. 21, 2016 – and he did so by overcoming a 2-for-8 showing from the floor in the first half.
Hayward, who ended up making 9-of-17 shots in just under 38 minutes, didn’t bask in the individual glory after the game, but put the emphasis on his teammates, like Kemba Walker has done, for his success.
“Credit to my teammates and picking me up, picking up the energy for me, telling me to keep attacking. Being in my corner, basically. Just having my back,” Hayward said. “Sometimes that’s all it takes is just some confidence from other guys and I was able to see some go in.”
While it is a small sample size of only four games, Hayward is averaging 17.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. Hayward has also knocked down 3-pointers with astonishing regularity — albeit another small sample size — making 58.3% (7-of-12) of his attempts from beyond the arc. Hayward’s 3-point shooting percentage is a vast contrast to the 33.3% mark he posted last year.
But for Hayward, it’s more about his willingness to consistently drive to the basket this season than his long-range makes. Hayward seemed timid last year to make moves toward the basket and finish through contact, but it has been just the opposite this season with Hayward displaying a regained confidence in his elite ability to score at the rim.
Early in the fourth quarter against the Bucks, Hayward exposed Brook Lopez in a one-on-one situation. Hayward took the slower-moving Lopez off the dribble with a hard drive to his left. Once getting past Lopez, he worked around Khris Middleton, who came over to contest the shot, and finished his layup with a nifty up-and-under move.
For critical stretches of the fourth quarter, it was evident Brad Stevens wanted the ball in Hayward’s hands for him to facilitate the offense.
After Hayward’s driving basket and a pair of free throws from Walker, the 6-foot-7 Hayward showcased his playmaking ability that came in only spurts a year ago, but has been delivered in spades this season.
Hayward had a hand in the C’s next four baskets, assisting on three of them, including one of highlight-reel variety when he corralled a defensive rebound, took off on the break and sent a perfect bounce pass to Jayson Tatum for a ferocious, momentum-swinging slam.
And while Hayward has adapted to different offensive roles, he is at his best spearheading the offense and being the facilitator to get everyone involved.
“It’s a lot of fun playing like that,” Hayward said. “We have too many weapons not to play like that. Too many guys that are so talented, so when we move the ball side-to-side we’re really tough to guard and everyone gets going, the energy picks up and that’s when it’s really fun.”
What’s been really fun is watching Hayward morph back into the player he once was. There’s always the possibility this could just be another spurt from Hayward that he has shown in the past to excite the fan base.
But this one not only seems different, but feels different with Hayward demonstrating a silent swagger in his play.
So, you can still listen to the whispers, the murmurs and the rumors. But there’s no need to. Hayward’s play has past the eye test and the signs all point to this being the player the Celtics envisioned all along.