On October 17, 2017, it seemed like Gordon Haywards’ time as one of the premier players in the league had come to a close. A brutal leg injury, which was diagnosed as a dislocated ankle and a fractured tibia, ended his first season in Boston before it even began. But after a year of rehab and another year playing limited minutes off the bench, Hayward has finally returned to his pre-injury form, playing a key role for the third-seeded Boston Celtics. Although his numbers are back up, his playstyle is quite different from his Utah days. Here is how Gordon Hayward has reinvented himself this season.
More Creative and Efficient Finishing Around the Basket
During his time in Utah, Hayward was an aggressive finisher around the basket. He often utilized a pump fake to get around his man on the perimeter, before driving hard at the center for an explosive finish such as here. This strategy was very effective for Hayward, who ranked among the best players on the Jazz in 2016-2017 on shots between zero and three feet. He was also second on the team in dunks, only behind 7-footer Rudy Gobert.
While Hayward’s leg injury may have sapped him of some of his explosiveness, that has not stopped him from being an efficient and effective finisher around the basket. In fact, Hayward is shooting six percent better around the rim than his 2017 All-Star campaign. In Boston, he has thrived on more creative finishing such as this change of momentum play versus Cleveland and this nice split of defenders against Indiana. Not only has Hayward found his pre-injury form in the finishing department, but he has also actually surpassed it. He now ranks in the top-10 among non-big men on shots close to the basket.
A Higher Quality Midrange Game
Midrange shots have always been an important part of Hayward’s game, even during his time in Utah. But during his time with the Jazz, his jump shot was not nearly as effective, mainly because he was taking poorer quality attempts. During his final two seasons in Utah, Hayward shot more jump shots from 16 to 22 feet than any other range besides from beyond the arc. On these long two-pointers, Hayward shot just 37.8 percent.
In Boston, Hayward has evolved his midrange game to move closer to the basket. He now shoots most of his jumpers in the 10 to 16-foot range, where he makes an absurd 49 percent of his shots. Hayward is able to get these shots through a wide array of moves, most notably a nice three-point pump fake followed by a fake drive and pull up jumper shown here and a beautiful mid-range fall-away shown here. These new moves have helped make him one of the deadliest mid-range artists in the game, he currently ranks fifth among forwards in mid-range field goal percentage.
More Effective Off the Ball
As the primary scorer on the Jazz, Hayward operated with the ball a lot more than he does in Boston. He scored the majority of his two-point field goals unassisted and only 35 percent of his two-pointers over his last three years in Utah had an assist credited to them. His usage rate also peaked during his time in Utah at nearly 28 percent, good for top 30 in the league. This play is a good example of what Hayward’s offensive game looked like at the time. He often worked to create his own shot without help from an immediate pass and would look to create space by stepping back for a long two-pointer.
In Boston, Hayward has thrived off the ball in ways he wasn’t able to in Utah. Because the Celtics have a wealth of talented scorers such as Kemba Walker, Jason Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Hayward himself, defenses are more often than not focused on someone besides Hayward. This has given him the freedom to move around and exploit defensive lapses such as this play versus Cleveland. The majority of Hayward’s two-pointers are now assisted, up over 16 percent from his time in Utah. His usage rate has gone down dramatically and now ranks just 88th in the league. Hayward has been a very effective scorer this season even without the ball in his hand constantly, which is a very valuable tool in today’s NBA when trying to build a team around more ball-dominant players.
Hayward’s return to form has been one of the feel-good stories of the year. He returned from a nearly career-ending injury to find success as a valuable piece on one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. A player with his skillset of quality off-the-ball scoring and solid defense will always be valued in the league and Hayward can expect to get another solid payday very soon. He has a player option for $34 million next season which he is expected to take and will then join a very talented 2021 free agency class. Due to his reinvention as a player in Boston, Hayward is on track to have many more successful years in the league if he can stay healthy.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference
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