Tomase: Gordon Hayward may be struggling, but return to Utah a reminder we shouldn't lose hope

John Tomase
November 09, 2018 - 12:11 pm
Gordon Hayward

Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports

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Gordon Hayward entered the NBA as a baby-faced bundle of potential. He arrived in Boston as a hardened, chiseled All-Star.

He spent every second in between with the Utah Jazz. He returns to Utah on Friday night, and it’s worth revisiting just what kind of player he became there before a catastrophic injury left him the player we see now – tentative, unsteady, finding his way – as we hope for a happy ending.

Of all our frustrations watching the Celtics so far – on Thursday they needed a Herculean performance from Kyrie Irving and perfect shooting down the stretch to overcome a 22-point deficit vs. the woeful Suns – Hayward’s situation is the toughest to evaluate.

Realists knew his return from last season’s gruesome broken ankle would require patience, especially after a follow-up surgery in March. But we still somehow hoped he’d pull a Paul George, who returned from a similar injury in 2015 and went off for games of 36, 40, 39, and 48 points before Christmas while playing 35 minutes a night. George made the All-Star team, as he has each year since.

Hayward’s comeback is playing out very differently. He has started all 10 games and is averaging 9.9 points on .400 shooting, numbers that accurately depict his contributions.

In Utah, Hayward was a three-level scorer who could exploit mismatches and finish at the rim.  He dropped 40 points on the Clippers in the 2017 playoffs, and watching the highlight reel is an exercise in what-might-have-been wistfulness. The highlight is a 30-foot clear-out, drive, and two-handed hammer on Defensive Player of the Year DeAndre Jordan, but the full Hayward skillset is on display.

He demands the ball, is constantly moving, and abuses the Clippers with drives, 3’s, pull-ups, fallaways, backdoor cuts, midrange jumpers, and smart, confident passes.

The last two items on that list represent the bulk of what he’s bringing the Celtics at the moment. His first basket in a Celtics uniform – a fallaway 12-footer from inside the dotted circle against the Cavaliers last year – was his only basket in a Celtics uniform until this season.

It’s also the one shot that hasn’t abandoned him as he rounds back into form. He similarly retains his court vision as a point forward, consistently finding open teammates over the top of opposing defenses. Unfortunately, he’s shooting only .333 on 3-pointers, and his explosiveness remains M.I.A.

Watching Hayward around the rim hurts. The most natural motion in basketball is jumping off your left leg to take a right-handed layup, but Hayward doesn’t trust his left leg, which has made him a right-leg jumper. This leads to some very awkward finishes requiring English and spin and crazy arcs as opposed to power, aggression, and thunder.

Hayward’s performance has put head coach Brad Stevens in a tough spot. Hayward’s playing with the starters, but not necessarily like one. His hampered mobility hurts the team at both ends of the floor, particularly with backup Marcus Morris excelling and earning major minutes in crunch time.

Hayward in Utah was active offensively. Hayward in Boston isn’t a threat to take anyone off the dribble. Defensively, he’s operating with diminished quickness to guard and decreased strength to hold his ground.

And yet, there’s no question the Celtics team best equipped to overtake the Raptors and challenge the Warriors is the one with Hayward starting and playing like something approximating his old self.

We’ve seen glimpses of it, like during an 18-point, five-assist performance vs. the Bucks. We’ve also seen him (gently) throw down an alley-oop and make some aggressive dives to the rim. But by and large, the best word to describe his play through 10 games is tentative.

Hayward acknowledges that his ankle remains consistently sore, and anyone who claims to know how his season will play out is lying. Maybe he finds his vintage form by April. Maybe this is as good as it gets. There’s a wide range of possibilities between those two extremes, and the Celtics can only hope he finishes closer to the former end of the continuum.

And that brings us back to Utah. Hayward blossomed there, and Celtics fans shouldn’t give up hope that he won’t be that player again. He suffered a physically and mentally devastating injury, and we must simply accept that it will take some time for the guy who became an All-Star in green and gold to rediscover that form in green and white.

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