Gordon Hayward Returns to Form Despite Injury-Shorted Debut Season in Charlotte

by Sam Perley

Shortly after forward Gordon Hayward signed with the Hornets last November, he mentioned that he had never forgotten about the commitment the organization made to him in extending an offer sheet way back in 2014, one that was later matched by the Utah Jazz.

And although his 2020-21 season was cut short by a foot sprain suffered on April 2, Hayward still proved to be the player that Charlotte targeted all those years ago. He was firmly in the conversation for a second career NBA All-Star Game nomination before eventually closing his 11th NBA campaign with averages of 19.6 points on 47% shooting – 42% from three – 5.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.2 steals in 44 appearances.

“I think I had a solid year,” he said during exit interviews in mid-May. “It was fun the way we played and I was able to get in the positions where I like to be at with the ball, making plays for others and myself. I have a tremendous amount of respect for [Coach Borrego] and for the staff. I thought they did a great job this year. From a basketball standpoint, I couldn’t be happier that I decided to come here.”

Hayward added, “Definitely disappointing and very frustrating with everything that happened here towards the end. I felt like we were in a really good place before I got injured. It’s always tough to have to sit there as I know probably better than anyone the last couple years. I think we are heading in the right direction.”

Amongst his most memorable performances this year included a career-high 44-point outburst in Atlanta on Jan. 6 and a 39-point showing on the road against Orlando on Jan. 24, an outing that featured a last-second, game-winning layup by Hayward. Despite a shortened schedule and then missing the final six weeks because of the injury, the Butler University product recorded 14 25-point showings this year, marking the third-highest single-season total of his career and most since making the NBA All-Star Game in 2017.

The unfortunate ending to Hayward’s first season in Charlotte perhaps hits even harder personally given everything he’s gone through the past few years. He suffered a harrowing leg injury in his Celtics debut back in 2017, which essentially robbed him of two years in his prime. Last season, he fractured his hand in early November and then dealt with a significant ankle sprain in the NBA Bubble.

The good news is that Hayward should be fully healed by now and will have a full offseason of training ahead of him, something that wasn’t always at his expense in year’s past. When he was healthy though, he was everything the young Hornets roster could have asked for: an experienced, sizeable presence who could score at all three levels, facilitate, guard multiple positions and at times, simply control and take over a game.

“You could just see flashes of when we moved the ball,” he said when asked about the team’s play this year. “The way that we played defensively being disruptive and in some passing lanes, getting stops, mixing it up between zone and man – I think we got way better as the season progressed. The way that we moved the ball, it’s really hard to defend when a team is zipping it around like that. If we can bottle that up, keep that approach and then shore up some of the other things, I’m definitely optimistic about our future.”

At the time, Hayward was one of the organization’s most prominent external free agent signings in quite a number of years. Even though the season didn’t end exactly how he or the Hornets were envisioning, the 31-year-old is confident that the team’s appealing playstyle and chemistry could slowly make Charlotte a more attractive destination.

“I think the way that we played this season turned a lot of heads and made a lot of guys want to be a part of that,” he said. “Certainly, I’ll be able to go out and recruit some people. We play fun basketball here in Charlotte. We move the ball. We’ll be up and down fast and it’s exciting. We have a bright future, so hopefully some guys will want to jump on that train.”

For now, though, Hayward is not only looking forward to soon getting back on the court, but also excited about the future of the team and where it can go from here following another year of tremendous growth.

“I think I’m going to have a great offseason and be better than what I was this year. I’m going to have the ability to really get the training in that I want to get in. We obviously have a lot of work to do with the way that we finished. We can see where we need to be. So, all of us need to buckle down this offseason and get going. I think we’re heading in the right direction and I like where we’re going.”


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