When the Boston Celtics signed Gordon Hayward during the summer of 2017, they signed an All-Star on the ascent, a versatile offensive threat who was also no slouch on the defensive end due to his ability to guard multiple positions.
But things obviously did not turn out the way the Celtics—or Hayward—planned.
On opening night of the 2017-18 campaign, Hayward suffered a gruesome broken leg injury that knocked him out for the season and took two years off his prime.
I say two years because this past season, Hayward was clearly not himself, blatantly showing the after effects of such a traumatizing injury both physically and mentally. The lift on his jumper wasn’t there. He was tentative to drive the lane. He was getting taken advantage of defensively.
Sure, there were nights where Hayward looked like his old self, but those games were few and far between.
But then, February rolled around, and suddenly, Hayward was starting to show flashes of the player he was in Utah. He was getting up and down the floor in transition. He was throwing down dunks. He was moving better. He was looking confident.
The 29-year-old then had an incredible close to the season, which carried into the first round of the playoffs against the Indiana Pacers, where he sent the Pacers home with a terrific 20-point performance in Game 4.
Of course, the Milwaukee Bucks series then came around, and aside from Game 1 where Hayward looked terrific, he reverted back to November Hayward in Games 2 through 5. But in Hayward’s defense, the entire Celtics team crawled into a shell after Game 1.
The question is, can Gordon Hayward return to his old form next season in Boston?
Yes, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are still around, but they are kids who are still progressing. In Hayward’s case, we really don’t know what type of player we are going to see, as we simply don’t know what type of shape his body is in.
The good news is that, aside from the Bucks series, Hayward was looking pretty good for a couple of months, and while he still wasn’t Jazz Hayward, he was at least starting to gain everything back.
Not only that, but Hayward’s role will be much more clearly defined heading into the 2019-20 campaign, as he, Walker and Tatum will unquestionably be the top three options on the team.
It may very well just be a matter of Hayward getting his confidence fully back and establishing a rhythm, something he appeared to be gradually during over the final couple of months of this past season.
And the Celtics now need the Hayward of old more than ever.
This past year, Hayward could at least hide a bit, as Boston was loaded with offensive talent to the point where Hayward wasn’t even a top five option on some nights.
But now? Boston has been stripped down quite a bit, and while the C’s did land Walker and are expecting big steps from some of their young guys, the expectations for Gordon Hayward will be greater.
Sure, Tatum is being looked upon as the player who really needs to take a leap forward next season if the Celtics want to get back to contending, and that’s fine, but I feel like a step forward from Tatum is pretty likely.
With Irving gone, Tatum will have more offensive freedom, and there also won’t be a toxic locker room presence dictating play on the floor. For Tatum, it may simply be a matter of getting more opportunities and having a larger role.
In Hayward’s case, however, it goes far beyond that, and I think people are underestimating just how crucial Hayward will be to the Celtics’ success next year, even moreso than Tatum.
Why? Because Hayward, prior to the injury, was already an established star, and he is the one getting paid max dollars; not Tatum. Tatum may very well be even better than peak Hayward was at some point, but right now, Tatum is some production and a whole lot of potential.
However, we have already seen what Hayward can do, and we know that when he is on his game, he is not only one of the best small forwards in the game, but one of the best all-around offensive players in the league, period.
There isn’t anything that a healthy Hayward can’t do on the offensive end of the floor, and if that Hayward is back next season, make no mistake about it: Boston will be really good.
But can Gordon Hayward do it? Can he get back to being the Swiss army knife he was three seasons ago?
The latter portion of the 2018-19 campaign showed that maybe, just maybe, he can.