How Gordon Hayward Provides an Immediate Upgrade to the Hornets’ Rotation

by Sam Perley

The Charlotte Hornets finally made one of the most noteworthy free-agent moves in team history officially official on Sunday afternoon with the addition of combo forward Gordon Hayward via a sign-and-trade transaction with the Boston Celtics.

Now heading into his 11th NBA season, Hayward (then a restricted free agent) originally signed an offer sheet with the Hornets six years ago, but returned to Utah when the Jazz matched the deal. He then landed in Boston in July of 2017, reuniting with his former Butler University Head Coach Brad Stevens. Together, the pair had helped lead an unexpected run to the 2010 NCAA National Championship game before falling just short of beating Duke for the title.

“I never forgot the commitment and the potential that Michael Jordan and the organization saw in me when they gave me an offer sheet,” said Hayward. “That for sure was always in the back of my mind in addition to the vision that the organization has of where this Hornets team can go and how they believed they could utilize me. Maximizing the impact that I could have and helping this team get to the next level was really enticing, really powerful and something I want to be a part of.”

While Hayward’s first two years in Boston were plagued by complications stemming from a broken leg suffered just minutes into his Celtics debut, he returned to form last season with averages of 17.5 points, a career-high 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 52 outings. He was firmly in the conversation for a second All-Star Game nomination a few weeks into the season before a broken hand sidelined him for a month of action.

All indications point to Hayward starting at small forward for the Hornets on opening night, adding a critical upgrade of high-level ball-handling, play-making and versatility to an offense that ranked in the bottom third in efficiency last season. The 30-year-old shot an outstanding 69.3% in the restricted area across his final year in Boston, a zone that Charlotte struggled in particular to convert at, although did rank ninth in the NBA in such attempts (30.2).

Hayward was the only player in the league to shoot at least 50% from the field, 35% from three and 85% from the free-throw line last season and is one of just six players overall to accomplish this feat over the last five campaigns (Kevin Durant, Malcolm Brogdon, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Karl-Anthony Towns). Hayward’s 50.0% and 85.5% marks from the field and charity stripe, respectively, were also both personal bests.

The ninth overall selection in the 2010 draft connected on 43.4% of his non-restricted-area paint shots and went 49.3% on mid-range attempts last season, two ranges where the Hornets shot 35.3% and 32.0%, respectively, as a team. Hayward’s passing abilities were relatively underutilized last season with Boston sitting eighth in isolation plays run (7.7) and 26th in assist percentage (55.7%), categories that the Hornets finished 26th (5.1) and fourth (63.9%) in.

Hayward’s role in Charlotte should elevate significantly after his usage rates dwindled to that of a third or fourth option in Boston following the recent emergences of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The amount of offensive possessions that ended in his hands (shot, turnover, foul shots) peaked at 21.6% in Boston last season after he rattled off usage marks of 22.7, 25.4, 24.9 and 26.3% with Utah from 2013-14 through 2016-17.

His added presence should open things up from an offensive creation standpoint and take some pressure off guards Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier (a former Celtics teammate) and LaMelo Ball. Head Coach James Borrego has emphasized the team’s intentions to operate within a more “position-less” offense this season and while Hayward primarily plays the three, he can also slide over to the shooting guard and power forward spots.

Lastly, Hayward grades out as an above-average defender and factoring in his offensive production, ranked sixth amongst NBA small forwards in ESPN’s real plus-minus calculations last season (2.11; trailed only LeBron James, Leonard, Khris Middleton, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris). And with nearly every other Charlotte player having just three-or-fewer NBA seasons under his belt, the Indianapolis native’s veteran guidance will be invaluable in the locker room.

“I still think I’m in the prime of my career and I think it’s going to be a great challenge,” he added. “Certainly, there’s going to be ups and downs as there are no matter where you’re at in basketball. I’m looking forward to being here in Charlotte. Devonte’ played great last year, PJ [Washington], Miles Bridges, too. Obviously drafting LaMelo and with the other guys that we drafted, I think there is a lot of potential.”

For Gordon Hayward, the move to Charlotte is largely about immersing himself in a totally new environment where he can produce at an elite level within a large role. And as for the Hornets, adding the former All-Star might just be exactly what they need from both a basketball and leadership standpoint in order to take that next step.

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