New Celtics big man Enes Kanter had fans in Boston tickled this week when he suggested that Boston forward Gordon Hayward should consider making plans for a weekend in Chicago this February. That happens to be the when and where for this year’s NBA All-Star game.
“What I think is, Gordon Hayward should definitely start eyeing the All-Star game,” Kanter told Kyle Draper and Chris Forsberg of NBC Sports in Boston. “Yes. Like you said, I think he had a very bad injury and I think with his work ethic, he has been doing an amazing job.”
That would be a big boost for Hayward individually. He can be a free agent next summer, though he would have to opt-out of the final year (at $34 million) to do so. There’s a chance Hayward would opt-out if he is back to his original form and could sign a long-term deal with Boston.
Team-wise, Hayward will be a critical piece for the Celtics this season as the team hopes to withstand the loss of Kyrie Irving (Nets) and Al Horford (Sixers) in free agency and still compete for the East championship. He has made the All-Star team once, while in Utah in 2016-17 when he averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
Ankle Injury Has Ruined Hayward’s Time With the Celtics
In Boston, Hayward’s time has been defined by the devastating ankle injury he suffered in his first game with the Celtics, in October 2017. That kept him out for the rest of his first season with Boston, which had signed him to a four-year, $128 million contract the previous summer.
Hayward returned to the floor last year but was not the same player. He appeared tentative, reluctant to attack the rim and unable to fit well with the Boston starting five. Hayward played most of the season as a sixth man, averaging 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists. He made only 33.3 percent of his 3-pointers, well off his previous career mark (36.8 percent).
But he did improve throughout the season, showing more aggressiveness and flashes of the players he had been in Utah before the Celtics gave him the big contract. His scoring ticked up in each of his first five months and he averaged 14.7 points in his final 14 games.
Hayward struggled again in the playoffs, though, averaging 9.6 points in nine games.
Return of Gordon Hayward’s Confidence Is Key
Much of Hayward’s difficulty last year can be traced to his lack of confidence after the injury as well as to the healing still need to be done on the injury itself. Kanter, who was Hayward’s teammate for three-and-a-half seasons in Utah, said he has seen Hayward’s confidence grow back.
“I actually played against him today and he looked amazing,” Kanter said. “Really good shape, lot of confidence and he felt so much more comfortable out there. I played with that dude three-and-a-half years with the Utah Jazz and I know the guy, I know how hard he works, how much he is willing to learn.”
Hayward will still have to deal with some of the same roster dynamics that appeared to give him trouble last season in Boston. Irving is gone but was replaced by point guard Kemba Walker, another high-scoring point guard who will be the focal point of the Celtics offense.
Coach Brad Stevens figures to attempt to go with an unorthodox three-forward lineup at the outset, using Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Hayward as interchangeable parts filling the 2-3-4 roles, bookended by Walker at the 1-guard spot and Kanter as the 5. Hayward struggled to find his offensive place in that type of lineup last year and the Boston lineup worked better with defensive wiz Marcus Smart as the 2-guard.
The hope is, fully healthy, Hayward will mesh better with Tatum and Brown and be able to relieve some ballhandling pressure from Walker.
Prospects for a Hayward All-Star Spot in the East
An All-Star slot would be possible for Hayward, if all goes right in Boston. The Eastern Conference is light on guard candidates for the Chicago rosters but there is an abundance of forwards, beginning with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and MVP candidate Joel Embiid.
After those two, the field is less daunting. East forwards will make up anywhere from 6-8 slots on the All-Star teams. Horford and Sixers teammate Tobias Harris figure to be candidates, too, as will Hayward’s teammate, Tatum. Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton earned a spot last year and would be a likely choice again if the Bucks have another strong start.
Pascal Siakam, Nicola Vucevic, Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin, Aaron Gordon, Kevin Love, Lauri Markkanen, Myles Turner—there are very few sure things among East forwards when it comes to the All-Star game.
It would take a serious bounce-back from a down season for Hayward to land one of the conference’s All-Star spots. But the opportunity is there for him.