For former Celtics forward Gordon Hayward, arriving in Charlotte as the Hornets’ No. 1 option has been refreshing. He is averaging an NBA career-high 22.5 points to go with 5.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists and Charlotte has, very quietly, won four straight games to move over .500 for the season.
Hayward’s most recent outing, a blowout win over the Knicks, saw him post 34 points on 11-for-17 shooting, making both of his 3-point tries and all 10 of his free-throw attempts.
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For Celtics fans watching him from 850 miles to the northeast, acknowledgement of his success has been grudging. Hayward left Boston in free agency this offseason, choosing to opt out of the last year his deal. Certainly, it was known that injury and opportunity were limiting factors during Hayward’s time with the Celtics. But to see him thriving the way he has been thriving stings a bit.
And Hayward seems to be having fun on the court in a way he never did in Boston — and perhaps even delivered a zinger to the Celtics when describing the way Charlotte plays.
“It’s fun basketball playing like this,” Hayward said in a virtual call after the Knicks win, “I am telling you, when the ball is moving, you’re getting open shots, you’re getting easy buckets, it’s just fun. Everyone’s involved. It’s hard to guard, I think it makes it really hard to guard. We are still stating to figure each other out.”
Gordon Hayward: Hornets Teammates ‘Can Really Pass the Ball’
Hayward’s Celtics career began, of course, with high expectations followed by devastating bad luck, as he broke his ankle in his first game with Boston and missed the entire 2017-18 season. He was not the same player the next season and by last year, ahead of his opt-out, he had been reduced to a fourth option as the Celtics had thriving young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, plus newly signed point guard Kemba Walker.
But Hayward is the top option in Charlotte and is playing like it.
Hayward is shooting 50.3% from the field and 40.4% 3-point line, with 93.2% from the free-throw line, putting him on pace to land in the exclusive 50-40-90 club, meaning he is shooting better than 50% from the field, 40% from the 3-point line and 90% from the free-throw line. Those thresholds have been met by only eight players in league history.
The Celtics had considered keeping Hayward in the fold for this year, but as the season wore on, it became clearer that Hayward would eventually seek to play a bigger role for another team rather than see limited shots for Boston.
Hayward is taking 16.6 shots per game for Charlotte, a career high and up from 13.5 shots per game in Boston last year. Charlotte has a slew of deft passers on the roster, including Hayward plus guards Devonte’ Graham and LaMelo Ball, who are each averaging better than 6.0 assists per game.
“No doubt, this is the way they told me we were gonna play,” Hayward said. “It’s the way I like to play basketball. I’ve got some great teammates who can really pass the ball and so it’s been a lot of fun.”
Hornets Swooped in With Hefty Hayward Offer
The Hornets had eyed Hayward entering the offseason, hoping that they could piece together an offer that would bring Hayward to Charlotte. As has been well-documented, Hayward’s preference was to have the Celtics and Indiana Pacers orchestrate a sign-and-trade that would send Hayward back to his home state. But when Boston and Indy struggled to come to an agreement, the Hornets’ mega-offer of four years and $120 million became more appealing and Hayward accepted the deal.
Now, for Hayward, it’s been about winning and getting the Hornets back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
“I think, ultimately, for me it is about trying to help us to win games,” Hayward said. “I feel like we’ve done a good job of that here the last four. Certainly, it’s been a lot of fun playing with my teammates, playing under this coaching staff, you know I am having a great time. As long as we keep doing our jobs, we play hard every night, the wins and losses will take care of themselves. We gotta try to keep growing as a team, I think we have a lot of work to still do, that’s definitely obvious but it certainly has been fun so far.”
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