The former Jazzman scores 25 points in loss Friday vs. his old team, as his old coach calls him “one of the best players in the league.”
Four summers ago, Gordon Hayward left a small-market team on the rise for the bright lights of Boston. This past offseason, he left behind Boston for another small-market team on the rise.
And on Friday night, he led his new small-market team against his original one in something of a full-circle moment.
Not that the Utah Jazz were looking at it that way, having long since moved on from his shocking departure, retooling around Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell to now become one of the league’s best teams. And with Hayward on the Hornets these days, there’s sufficient emotional distance to now simply evaluate what he brings to Charlotte as an opponent, as opposed to what he left behind, or what could have been.
Hayward entered Friday’s game averaging 22.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and shooting 50.1% from the floor and 43.2% beyond the arc.
“Well, it’s no secret how I feel about Gordon and the type of player that he is — I think he’s one of the top players in the league, and he’s showing that in this situation right here,” said his former coach and still-Jazz coach Quin Snyder.
After signing with the Celtics, intending to be the guy who would take their rebuild to the next level, things never quite worked out that way. A grotesque leg injury in his first game sidelined him for an extended period. In the interim, the young core of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown began to assert control of the team. Hayward became relegated to a lesser role.
Until he reached free agency this past offseason, and the Hornets threw their checkbooks at him, hoping he could do with them what he never was able to with the Celtics, and guide a young, aspirant team to a higher level.
Charlotte coach James Borrego still can’t quite believe what he wound up with.
“The biggest thing is he’s been a gem as a as a playmaker. He’s got the size — in this league, we needed someone with size that could play-make. And his playmaking is the best thing that he does, and I think you saw that back to Utah,” Borrego said. “I think he’s gotten better, probably, even more so than his Utah days, as far as a playmaker. But he loves to share the ball, move the ball, he loves passing the ball.
“We’ve tried changing his shooting profile a little bit. So more 3s, more [at the] rim, more free throws. And he’s done that, he’s been exceptional there as far as shooting the ball,” he added. “And he’s just bought us a fourth-quarter closer. I think he did that for the Jazz as well, some in Boston; and for us, obviously, he has that poise, that ability to get his own shot, to shoot it from 3 out of pick-and-roll, to pull up in the mid-range or kick it if necessary. He’s been a matchup problem more than I expected.”
Hayward got off to a quick start Friday, scoring 11 points in the opening quarter. His shot abandoned him in the second quarter, though, as he went scoreless.
In the third, though, he was back on track, notching 14 points, and pretty much single-handedly trying to keep the Hornets within shouting distance.
He couldn’t pull it off, in the end, finishing with 25 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists in the loss.
Still, Snyder was happy to see him in a situation where he was flourishing once again.
“I think the clarity he has, that JB has provided for him, the way that they use him on the court, you can see his comfort level,” he said. “And when he’s comfortable — like any player, that’s when your ability to make plays and score and do a lot of the other things on the court [improves].
“I think the way that he’s playing, and the system and the way that they’re using him, clearly he doesn’t look like he’s been here a short time,” Snyder added. “He looks like he’s very comfortable and happy, that he’s fallen into into a mindset and an opportunity the way he has, because he’s worked hard to get where he is. And as I said, I think he’s one of the best players in the league.”