There were a variety of reasons that the 2018-19 Boston Celtics did not become the team everyone believed they could be. There has been, and will continue to be, much debate about what those reasons are, but the one we can all agree on is that the expectations were far too high all-around. This is especially true in the case of Gordon Hayward. Twelve months removed from one of the most brutal injuries seen on the basketball court, fans and pundits alike were too optimistic on Hayward, and for every game he looked like old Hayward, there would be four more where it was clear he wasn't quite there yet.
It has now been 24 months since the injury. Hayward is averaging 20.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 4.6 assists through the first seven games of the 2019-20 season. The question that has been asked for the last year (is Gordon Hayward back?) seems to finally have an answer, and I imagine if Hayward was posed that question, his response would be not unlike Keanu Reeves in the first John Wick movie: "Yeah, I'm thinking I'm back!"
Okay, maybe not, because Hayward is too nice to say something like that, but he is most definitely back to his old ways, or as close as he could be after such a horrific injury. He's getting to his spots with an ease we haven't yet seen from him in a Celtics uniform, and when he's that comfortable, the shot-making is the easy part. His biggest game of the year so far was a 39-point outburst against the Cavs in which he shot an astounding 17-for-20 and absolutely owned the mid-range and paint.
Much of this can just be chalked up to Hayward getting back into the flow of things. The comparison regularly made last season was with Paul George, who missed all but six games of the 2014-15 campaign with a similar injury. But when he came back in 2015, he was as everyone remembered. Most assumed Hayward would follow a similar recovery timeline of about a year and a half before rounding into form. But the difference was that George was able to spend an entire offseason getting back into "game shape", as it were; Hayward couldn't play five-on-five until August of 2018, and had to get back into the flow of it during games. That's difficult to do in a normal NBA season, much less on last year's Celtics team.
He's now reached that level, and it can be seen most clearly in his drives to the basket. Last year, he moved well, but struggled with contact once he got to the rack. This year, though, he's using his wide frame to absorb the contact and has regained his feel. He still isn't getting to the line at the same rate (2.7 attempts per game this year, compared to 5.9 his last year in Utah), but he's shooting 75 percent from the restricted area. When he gets to the paint, it's almost always a bucket.
This is obviously great to see on a variety of levels. His output has helped offset what has been a bit of a tough start to Kemba Walker's Celtics career, and his comfort driving into the paint has made him a complete pick-and-roll threat for a team that has very much relied on that set to start the year. It's been a long time coming, but Gordon Hayward looks like the guy Boston signed to a max contract in the summer of 2017.