Norse mythology tells a tale of Loki, the adopted son of Oden who grows to become the master of deception. Loki takes on many forms, unexpectedly changing faces in order to deceive those he wishes to harm. In Boston, they have their own master of deception, capable of lulling teams into a false sense of security before deluging them in a broad spectrum of ways.
Finally entering a season healthy following a two-year struggle, Gordon Hayward came out of the gates on fire. Creating a spectacle of insightful passing, smart cutting, and impeccably timed jump shots. An All-Star appearance, it seemed, was beckoning. Then a freak injury occurred at the hands of LaMarcus Aldridge, causing Hayward to miss thirteen games. Shortly after that, an issue with his reconstructed ankle/foot began to show, which again lead him to miss some time on the floor.
All of this was beyond Hayward’s control, as was his initial injury two years ago. What has been in his control is the level of play he contributes when on the floor, and he hasn’t disappointed.
When on the floor, Hayward is the team’s most versatile player. Capable of running the offense, he can calmly dictate the pace of play while setting his teammates up for high quality scoring opportunities. No shock then, that his usage rating is in the 82nd percentile league wide according to Cleaning the Glass. Impressively, Hayward’s usage rating directly correlates to his assist numbers too, where he is sitting at the 89th percentile with 18 percent of his teammates shots coming directly off a Hayward feed.
When the pass isn’t there for Gordon, he is a fearsome prospect from the mid-range and around the rim. Ranking in the top 8 percent of players around the rim, Hayward is connecting on 70 percent of his looks (97-for-139 in total). Step out to the mid-range and he is still a huge problem, ranking in the 91st percentile and connecting on 49 percent of his attempts.
The mid-range game has been Hayward’s bread and butter this year, utilizing his go-to turn around fade away when coming out of a quasi post-up. He does favor the left side of the court when shooting this shot though, so he needs to be careful teams don’t begin to bait him left in order to shut him down.
Shooting from deep, Hayward is respectable, dropping 39 percent of his attempts from across the floor when behind the arc. It’s the corners, however, that really elevate Hayward into a deep range threat. Currently operating as a 42 percent shooter when he is found in the corners, Hayward is punishing defenses for anticipating the drive or pass. He is showing himself to be a true three-level scorer, along with an elite level facilitator. The match-up issues this poses are relentless, teams are faced with the unenviable task of shutting down Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker all in the same game.
Here is where the Loki reference comes into play. Hayward has developed this innate skill to float through sections of games unnoticed, making ghosted runs into scoring areas almost unchallenged. He does this by placing himself as the fourth option for portions of games, then when the time is right, when defenses have switched their focus to other contributors, Hayward comes to life in a flurry. Then he takes the back seat again and allows others to get to work. It’s somewhat of an art form really, showing great selflessness and team-first mentality while still ensuring he gets his.
Defensively he is no slouch either.
Synergy classifies him as “excellent” in their rating system for all-around defense, having held opposing offenses to just 0.86 points per possession over 342 total possessions. What’s more impressive is the lack of shooting fouls Hayward commits when guarding his man, sitting in the 95th percentile due to the 1.8 fouls per 100 possessions committed. Nullifying the offensive threat without giving them an opportunity at the charity stripe is a coach’s dream.
As always, nothing is perfect. So let’s take a look at the opportunities Hayward has to improve his already polished game even further. It has to begin with aggression on the drive. Utah Hayward’s game was predicated on utter savagery when driving. He showed a complete disregard for whoever was in his way when the basket was in sight. Mauling defenders of all sizes while on his way to poster after poster, if he chose not to dunk on you, then you would be dazzled by the wizardry displayed on his lay up finishing.
Currently, Boston fans are not seeing this killer instinct from Hayward. When met with tough interior defense he becomes tentative, opting to defer the rock rather than going super saiyan. One can assume this is a mental restriction that has become a byproduct of his gruesome injury, but the threat of a Hayward drive is what historically opened things up for his work in the mid-range.
In Boston, things are slightly different for Hayward, he’s not required to be the ferocious cutter of old due to the leaps made from his younger contemporaries. That has allowed him to still produce from his favored spots on the floor regardless. Just imagine how much more the floor would open up if that aggression returns.
On the other end of the floor, his biggest weakness is his ability to close out jump shooters. Synergy currently has Hayward allowing scorers to hit 42.5 percent off the spot up, which skyrockets to 58.2 percent when adjusting for threes. This issue predominantly occurs when switches are taking place. Hayward is usually subjected to tags on his way to close out his man. Tags are designed to slow down the defender just enough to provide the shooter with an extra slither of space. Hayward gets hit with these regularly due to his versatility of defense.
That versatility means he is switching onto focal points of the offense as the plays unfold, which allows teams to put plans in place to slow him down as he relocates. Utilizing his foot speed and body control will be key to Hayward developing mechanisms to avoid this contact moving forward. He is one of the team’s best defenders, so he is required to figure out this one shortcoming.
Overall, Hayward has shown himself to be one of the most integral pieces to Boston’s championship puzzle. As the season progresses, should Hayward stay healthy, it’s a fair assumption that he will continue to improve on what we have seen so far. He came to Boston to win a chip playing for Brad Stevens, if that doesn’t happen this year, don’t be surprised if you see him pick up his player option this summer and back in green to start next season.