It’s impossible not to feel for Gordon Hayward. Following last year’s disappointing campaign, where he struggled upon returning from the horrific knee injury he suffered during the 2017-18 opener, Hayward was finally starting to find his groove again. He started this campaign averaging 18.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.1 assists while slashing .555/.433/.842 – all vast improvements over his marks from last season and looked like one of the Celtics’ best players early in the year. But his great progress hit a LaMarcus Aldridge-sized wall on Saturday when Hayward fractured his left hand in a game against the San Antonio Spurs.
Hayward figures to be out for approximately six weeks following successful surgery on Monday, but if we add a couple of weeks for him to return to basketball activities and game shape as well, Hayward will likely miss upwards of two months with this injury. It will likely be 2020 before we see this version of Gordon return.
In the meantime, just as they have done so far this season, the Celtics will look to the whole squad to pick up the slack in Hayward’s absence – not least forward Jayson Tatum. Much maligned for his shot selection and specifically his propensity for contested long two’s, Tatum has clearly made a conscious effort this season, following his meetings and workouts with Kobe Bryant last summer, to take more shots at the rim or outside the arc. After taking 39% of his shots from mid-range last season, Tatum has dropped that number down to 33%, while he’s increased his three-point volume from 3.9 attempts per game all the way up to 6.8.
And yet, despite this increased aggressiveness, Tatum is shooting just 42.4% on two pointers this year – a number that would put him in the 11th percentile of forwards according to Cleaning the Glass. Much of that has come down to his lack of ability to finish at the rim. Tatum is doing a great job of getting to the cup but has struggled mightily with putting the ball in the hole against bigger defenders.
After improving from 59% to 63% from his rookie to sophomore year, Tatum has regressed back down to shooting just 51% on field goal attempts at the rim this year, per Cleaning the Glass – in the 22nd percentile for forwards. A lot of his problems arise because, unlike Hayward, when Tatum drives, he puts his head down and seems to have his mind made up rather than reacting to the defensive coverage.
Take a look at this clip below from the Celtics early season encounter against the Milwaukee Bucks, where Tatum has a step on his defender, Wesley Matthews, and sees a retreating Ersan Ilyasova. With two men on Tatum, Khris Middleton has to decide whether to cover the open Semi Ojeleye or Marcus Smart. He leans toward Semi, giving Smart an open lane to cut to the basket, which he does. But Tatum’s mind is already made up and instead of finding the open Smart cutting for a layup, he forces a tough shot with Ilyasova all over him.
Or this one, where Tatum gets by Giannis, after a little slip screen action by Daniel Theis, and has Brook Lopez to meet him in the lane. Rather than kicking to an open Marcus Smart in the corner for a three, Tatum is focused on the basket from the second he rounds the corner, and has the ball knocked away as he tries to attack the pair of seven-footers in the paint.
It’s early, yes, but Tatum currently ranks 101st out of 120 players in terms of FG% on drives (for players >4 drives / game), according to Synergy, shooting just 35.3% on over 9 drives a night. Contrast that with Hayward’s 63.4% mark (5th in league) on 11.5 drives a night, and it’s clear that this is one area where Tatum can learn from his now-injured teammate.
While Tatum is perhaps overly aggressive in terms of trying to get to the rim, Hayward has done a superb job so far this season of taking what the defense has given him. Much like Jets running back Le’Veon Bell, who is known across the NFL for his patience and ability to find holes in the opposing defense, Hayward does a fantastic job of probing the defense until he finds an opening.
Hayward hesitates slightly here to get the step on Kevin Love, following a Daniel Theis screen, and then gives Love a little bump to get the defender off balance before nailing one of his patented fadeaways.
In this final clip, Hayward does an excellent job of probing and being patient as he waits for Robert Williams to roll to the hoop. He slows the pace down, which keeps Allonzo Trier on his hip and forces Marcus Morris to apply some pressure, which in turn sets up the easy lob for Williams to finish.
Rather than putting his head down as Tatum often does, Hayward is always looking to see what the defense is giving him before he makes his decision. That coupled with his change of pace and solid passing ability, makes Hayward truly dangerous when coming down the lane.
Tatum will likely be asked to shoulder more of an offensive load with Hayward out over the next few weeks, which means more opportunities to drive and play off pick-and-rolls. He has already shown the ability to get to the basket well, and so the next step for Tatum is to slow the game down, as Hayward does, and make the right decision once he’s at the hoop.