The Latest from Priority Sports
The Latest from Priority Sports
Just minutes into last year's regular-season opener, Gordon Hayward suffered a gruesome leg injury that sidelined him for the entirety of the 2017-18 season. So it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that he felt some nerves, the shot was a little flat and the rhythm wasn't quite right when he stepped onto the Dean Smith Center floor Friday night for his first NBA game since Oct. 17, 2017.
But after a year of rehab and what probably felt like millions of questions about his status, Hayward was just happy to "get that one out of the way."
"Didn’t feel like I played my best basketball, but I was having fun out there," Hayward said after the Hornets defeated the Celtics by a final score of 104-97. "Good to be back with the guys. Definitely had some good moments, some bad ones.”
Despite the obvious rust, Hayward's early preseason play offers a glimpse of what he could bring to a Celtics team expected to win the Eastern Conference.
To be clear, it's not worth taking advanced stats from a couple glorified scrimmages and starting Hayward's All-Star campaign in early October. There are a few moments, though, that should give Hayward's teammates plenty of confidence that he can reach that status again.
Hayward finished 1-of-5 from 3-point range in his first preseason game, but that one make shows why he can be such a lethal offensive weapon. Hayward shot 41.3 percent on pull-up 3-pointers his last full season with the Jazz hitting deep attempts like this...
"That [shot] felt good, because the other ones were just barely off," Hayward said. "That one felt good, and it was like a 'finally' type moment. I think more of those will come with playing."
Fast forward to Sunday's preseason rematch with the Hornets in Boston, and Nic Batum finds himself in a similar situation against Hayward. Batum goes over the screen this time, allowing Hayward to keep him on his back and finish through contact at the basket.
And if the big man commits to far toward the ball — Willy Hernangomez in this case — Hayward is capable of finding the roller for an easy score.
Utilizing Hayward as a primary ball-handler puts incredible pressure on the defense because of his skills and the shooting available around him. Help defenders will be hesitant to stray too far from Kyrie Irving (40.8 percent on 3-pointers in 2017-18), Jaylen Brown (39.5) or Jayson Tatum (43.4), and Hayward has the size and vision to kick out to the 3-point line if they do. Al Horford (42.9) can cut to the basket or go pick-and-pop depending on how the opposing center reacts.
Here's the scary part with Hayward: Brad Stevens hasn't even unleashed the Irving-Hayward two-man game seen briefly during last year's preseason slate. Irving and Hayward displayed some real chemistry on the floor as part of what should be this season's starting unit (Irving-Brown-Tatum-Hayward-Horford).
Just look at how they both force their defenders to help and recover until they find an open shot...
And how seeking out the mismatch draws two Hornets to the ball, leading to corner 3-pointer from Tatum.
"It's scary to think about some of the opportunities that we're gonna have going forward," Irving said Friday night. "Obviously teams are gonna try to do a lot of switching, and we're gonna punish the switches. Lot of guys that are threats coming off a lot of our actions. Just gotta continue to build that continuity."
The Celtics won 55 games in 2017-18 and nearly took down LeBron James and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals, but they were still missing a key piece all season long. Hayward's skill set will create opportunities for others (particularly with the starting five), whether he's in command as a primary ball-handler or spotting up outside the arc.
As Hayward develops a familiarity with his teammates and rediscovers his timing and rhythm, the Celtics should only continue to improve. Good luck trying to stop them.