Gordon Hayward's career as a member of the Boston Celtics has been a story of trials and tribulations with little triumph. After signing with Boston in the summer of 2017, Hayward suffered a catastrophic leg injury that sidelined him for all of the season. He spent pretty much all of the following year trying to get comfortable on the floor, and there were some flashes with four 30-point games in 2018-19. But he clearly wasn't there yet, and it was hard to blame him. Going up for a routine alley-oop that he's done a thousand times over and having it end in a broken ankle will linger on the mind.
When 2019 began, expectations were that Hayward would be something like the All-Star he was when he signed with Boston. He had a year to re-acclimate and the Celtics went through an internal reset after a disappointing season. But he just couldn't get there. Right when it seemed like Hayward was truly back into the groove of the game, he broke his hand. After recovering from that, some issues with the same ankle he broke popped up, and he spent the last month of the season before it was postponed either hobbled or missing games entirely.
Perhaps more than any player on the Celtics' roster other than Kemba Walker, Hayward benefitted from the four months off. When he arrived in Orlando for the bubble, he said he was still feeling some discomfort in his left leg but it was manageable. Turns out it was much more than manageable. After six games sporting a brand-new mustache that his wife hates, Hayward has at last looked like the Hayward of Utah fame, the player everyone universally agreed was worth a max contract. It's wonderful to watch, because as I wrote over the weekend, watching any player succeed after suffering what could very well have been a career-threatening injury is one of the pure joys of sport. It's also a huge boon for Boston's title chances.
In Orlando, Hayward has been averaging 18.7 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the floor with 8.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists to boot. His last season in Utah, Hayward averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per contest. His bubble statline is arguably more impressive than that last season as a member of the Jazz because Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker are all individually better scorers than anyone Hayward had next to him in Utah. He's balancing being aggressive and spreading the ball around with his talented teammates in the way the Celtics need him to. It came to a head last night, as the Celtics took down the Orlando Magic on the strength of Hayward's 31 points on 12-of-18 shooting.
The most obvious change in Hayward's game is his confidence getting to the rim. He's struggled with finishing in the restricted area since returning from the injury, which, again, makes complete sense in context of how the injury was suffered. It takes a lot of mental fortitude to go up against a 7-foot center and not think at all about what happened in Cleveland nearly three years ago. On Sunday night, he was as confident down low as he ever has been in Celtics green. Hayward drove by Nikola Vucevic on switches multiple times throughout the evening when before he would have settled for a pull-up jumper. His dedication to getting into the lane also opened up Boston's drive-and-kick offense, when they become most dangerous.
It's an important development for Boston. Hayward isn't as good of a scorer as Tatum or Walker, but he's a better distributor than both of them and more consistent in every area than Brown. He's their Swiss Army Knife, able to do everything at a high level without sacrificing touches for his teammates or his own ability to affect the game. He's a steadying presence for a team that relies a lot on two young stars to bring their A-game every night. Hayward was good enough during the regular season to help make the Celtics one of the best all-around teams in basketball, but taking his play to a higher level takes the team to another level as well.
Maybe the 'stache has unlocked his full powers. Maybe the fact that he has literally nothing to do other than play basketball and video games (the two loves of his life that aren't his wife and family) is allowing him to completely lock in. Maybe it's as simple as, for the first time since October 2017, he feels entirely healthy. But if this version of Hayward can keep it going throughout the next few months, it will be the difference between playoff contention and championship contention.