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Q&A: Gordon Hayward is liking his decision to join Hornets, has high praise for LaMelo Ball

Despite experiencing some backlash last fall, Gordon Hayward is thriving for a Hornets team that has their eyes on the playoffs.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Gordon Hayward is having one of the best seasons of his career during his first season in Charlotte.

In an era of star players bailing on franchises for better pastures by teaming up with players of equal or better talent elsewhere, Gordon Hayward took the road less traveled last fall in the off-season. He left the Boston Celtics for the Charlotte Hornets, which is the collegiate equivalent of swapping Duke for, ahem, Butler.

We’ll get to that tasty analogy a bit later. Hayward’s decision to force a sign-and-trade caused tremors in the basketball world if only because the Celtics fit the description of a title contender (even if they’ve fallen short in that regard) while the Hornets are, once again, on the rebuilding treadmill. It was indeed strange on the surface, although once you consider the contractual jackpot for doing so — $120 million over four years — it seems a lot more palatable and a good financial move for Hayward when he declined his option year in Boston.

Monday on NBA TV: Hornets vs. Blazers (10:30 ET)

Hayward has thrived in his new locale, and the Hornets have with him. The big swingman is enjoying one of his better seasons, all things considered, averaging 21.5 points per game on 48.5% shooting overall and 42.1% on 3-pointers as he prepares to turn 31 on March 23. Charlotte has featured him prominently in the offense, a role last familiar to Hayward back in his final days with the Utah Jazz five seasons ago.

The Hornets are making an unexpected bid for a playoff spot while the Celtics are scuffling in the lower half of the Eastern Conference standings, far below where they were initially projected even without Hayward. (Boston is 17-17 and the No. 6 seed while Charlotte is 16-17 and No. 8.)

Evidently, Hayward has been a difference-maker to a degree with both franchises. What’s more refreshing to Hayward is he’s healthy — knock-knock on wood — and therefore avoiding the issues that have plagued him in an otherwise solid 10-year career. His ankle sprain in the first round of the playoffs last season hampered him through the Eastern Conference finals, where the favored Celtics fell to the Miami Heat in six games. Fans have vented frustration at Hayward, which is unfair; players never choose to get hurt, and if anything, injuries are often caused from effort. Blame the basketball gods or Hayward’s crummy luck for that.

In an interview last week with 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston last week, Celtics majority team owner Wyc Grousbeck said: “Gordon’s having an excellent year down in Charlotte. Gordon’s flourishing in Charlotte is because he’s featured and because he deserves it. And he’s a great player, as we know. You should have seen the offer we made him to stay, it reflects a lot of respect for his game. But he’s more featured down there and he’s living up to it. And we’re happy for him.”

Hayward recently agreed to an interview with NBA.com, where he discussed that departure from Boston, and his thoughts on splashy Hornets rookie LaMelo Ball and how he coped with the blowback from his signing. Also, he weighed in about perhaps his most notable basketball achievement — nearly leading Butler to a mighty upset of Duke in the 2010 NCAA title game and if he could have a last-shot do-over. Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.


NBA.com: From the looks of things, you seem more aggressive, you’re embracing the role of being the primary option and you look happy with the Hornets. Is this correct?

Hayward: For sure. I’m really enjoying my time in Charlotte, certainly the role’s a little bit different, one that I’m embracing. It’s a season I’m really enjoying.

This is the first time you’ve joined a team that wasn’t an established winner; the Jazz won 53 games the season before you arrived and the Celtics were in playoff contention when you signed in 2017. Did you have to adjust your approach coming to a team that has made the playoffs only three times in 16 seasons and never reached the second round?

Going in I knew it was going to be a challenge, something I was looking forward to doing, to try and maximize my potential as a basketball player and help us get to that next level. When I first got to Utah we were in the playoffs the year before. But ultimately we started a rebuild in Utah, so I’ve kind of been through that a little bit. We’re trying to build something here in Charlotte like I had there, build the team up. There was a year in Utah when we were in the 20s in wins, then 30s, then 40s, and my last year we scratched for 50. I’m certainly going to build on that experience here in Charlotte. So far we’ve had our ups and downs as a young team. With all the craziness we’ve been through this season as a league, it makes things a little bit harder for a team to grow. But I think we’re doing OK.

You’re off to a strong start, what else is working for you?

I’ve been trying to get to the free throw line a little bit better. I have to do that more consistently. Driving and getting downhill kind of opens everything up for me, opens up the shot, allows me to get to the free throw line. That’s been a focus.

So let’s discuss the elephant in the room. When did you decide to leave the Celtics and why?

Not until that day when I decided. There was so much that happened before that, in the bubble, me getting hurt. In the bubble I felt like our team was playing really well, I felt like I was doing well. Then I get hurt, I have to come out of the bubble to rehab, then go back in, not fully healthy, we lose in the playoffs and at the same time I have a baby boy and come back home. The league told us the season probably wasn’t going to start until the end of January, so I have a minor surgery to do and rehab. But then actually we’re going to start right before Christmas. Then you’re scrambling, trying to get ready and healthy, then free agency hits and ultimately you have to decide where to be. It really wasn’t was until the day I decided that I wanted to have a fresh start and try to help this team.

Your time in Boston was interrupted by various injuries, especially the big one. After suffering a broken leg just six minutes into your first season there, in hindsight, when were you fully recovered mentally and physically from that?

So I get hurt, I come back that next year but I really don’t play 5-on-5 until that training camp. I had to work my way through that season, and then finally I had a whole offseason to train the way I wanted to train. We stayed in Boston and definitely felt good going into that next year.

You, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, three All-Stars, played virtually the same role and swing position. You would not have the same freedom and touches in Boston that you have now in Charlotte. Was there any conflict among the three of you, as a result? Did that situation work in your opinion, and if so, would it continue to work had you stayed?

I think we would figure out a way to make it work. We won a lot of basketball games together. All of us would tell you that we were disappointed in the way things worked out. Those are two extremely talented players. I think they’re going to be some of the best wing players the league has to offer in the future. It’s one of those things where we had so many good players, not just us three. Kyrie (Irving), Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, T-Roze (Terry Rozier) now with me in Charlotte. We just had so many different options. Sometimes there’s only one basketball, you know? I think we found a way to make it work. We were right there, certainly with some injuries. I have nothing but positive things to say about my time in Boston. I have great relationships I built there. It was one of those things where I decided what was best for my family and myself, and that was to be here in Charlotte.

Boston lost to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals last season.

There was a heavy response both inside and outside the NBA to you switching teams and also the size of the deal with Charlotte. What’s your reaction to the reaction?

When I got injured, I decided I can’t be on social media anymore because there was some times when I was injured where I was kind of in a dark place, reading all the comments and not being able to play. I actually didn’t see much of the reaction. I know my friends said some things here and there. For me it was like, who cares what people say? It is what it is. I’m here in Charlotte and I’m gonna try to be the best player I can be here.

So, what’s it like to be wanted by Michael Jordan?

(Laughs) It’s really cool. It’s definitely like, you’re sitting there, and then you get a phone call from Michael Jordan and he says, hey young fella, I want you to come play for us. That’s pretty cool. And it’s the second go-round for me with him. I always remember him and the organization believing in me earlier when they gave me the offer sheet when I was in Utah that ultimately the Jazz matched. It’s just a great feeling having him believe in you.

From your conversations with him, how badly does Jordan want to get this turned around and put this franchise on the map?

It’s Michael Jordan, you know? I definitely think he wants to win, he wants to win in everything. So this is something that I’m trying to help with. We have a lot of young talented players and you can see it on the court when we play well. Sometimes we also lay an egg and I’m trying to help us be more consistent.

His appetite for winning extends to golf. You’re not getting into a foursome with him anytime soon, are you?

No, no, I’m happy I don’t play golf. No way. (Laughs) I can’t get roped into that.

The Hornets are suddenly must-see TV because the team is entertaining. After so many dreary years, Charlotte finally has a fun team, yet can’t fill the arena because of the pandemic. That has to be bittersweet, right?

I love the way we play the game. We pass the ball, we move, we cut. Obviously with LaMelo, he’s a fun guy to play with, he makes some exciting plays. Miles (Bridges), the alley oops and the connection they have, T-Roze and the dunks he’s had. There have been many games where it would’ve been an electric atmosphere in the building. We’ve had some great wins at home. It’s disappointing there’s no fans. Us players live for that. Definitely not the same, but it’s the world we’re in right now. For example, I just got tested for the third time today. They said there’s a chance in the second half we can get some fans.

When did you know LaMelo Ball could be special as a rookie?

You could see it in training camp. He has a special feel for the game, a magnet for the ball, he’s in the right place in right time, and a lot taller than I thought. He gets to his spot, got a great handle. He’s going to be really, really good.

How much of a better player is Terry Rozier now, compared to when he was with you as a backup in Boston?

Terry is thriving with more responsibility. He plays with a great mindset, he’s embracing the bigger role. He’s a guy that can fill it up; he’s had multiple 40-point games already this year. We need his shooting, his shot-making, and also need him defensively because he puts unreal pressure on the ball.

You’ve been coached by Jerry Sloan, Quin Snyder and Brad Stevens, all of whom have high credentials, and now James Borrego, who comes from the Gregg Popovich tree. What have you taken from them?

I try to learn as much as I can from all these guys. I had coach Sloan in my rookie year, obviously with Brad in college and being able to play with him for the Celtics, coach Quin is a terrific coach and you can see how they’re doing this year in Utah. And with JB here in Charlotte, from day one we’ve had a good relationship and he’s well on his way.

Here’s a deal from the Basketball Gods. They say your half-court shot against Duke at the buzzer in the NCAA championship game is good, and you and Butler become college basketball immortals. But in exchange, the Gods want one year of your NBA career. You making that deal?

I don’t know if I would make any deal with the Gods. I think what happens, happens. Those runs with my Butler guys were something I’ll never forget. It’s interesting: I’ve kind of come full circle here. I played under Brad in college and the NBA. I definitely didn’t think that would ever happen, meaning me in the NBA, not necessarily him in the NBA. Then this year I have the opportunity to play under coach Ronald Nored, who’s an assistant here. Ron was our starting point guard and my road roommate in college. It’s been really fun having him here. We’ve always had a good relationship. He was instrumental in my deciding to come here because I was able to talk to him first as a friend, and then as an assistant coach, and picked his brain about what it’s like to play here and live here. So, as far as the basketball Gods, I don’t know if I would make a deal. I wish the shot had gone in, but I’m happy with how things have turned out.

You were a two-time Indiana state singles champion in tennis. If you stuck with the sport instead of switching to basketball, which kinda worked out in hindsight, would you be on the ATP tour right now?

Man, that’s a good question. I was a better tennis player in high school than I was a basketball player, but I always loved basketball more. Thankfully I was able to grow throughout high school to get to the frame I have now. Man, I still watch tennis and those guys are impressive. I don’t know if I could make it on tour.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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