Gordon Hayward Is Off To The Best Start Of His Career In Charlotte

At 7-9, the Charlotte Hornets are off to a much better start than most prognosticators predicted, thanks in large part to a resurgent Gordon Hayward, who they famously inked to a 4-year, $120 million deal this offseason. When Hayward signed that contract, the general consensus was that Charlotte had overpaid. Here was a player who was entering his 30s and, while he enjoyed a bounceback season in 2019-20, hadn’t been asked to be the focal point of a team since before his gruesome 2017 ankle injury that cost him a full season of basketball.

If the Hornets were paying $30 million a year to get a secondary playmaker and scorer, that felt like a steep price to pay, even when factoring in the small-market tax required of a team like Charlotte. However, through 16 games of his Hornets tenure, Hayward has been nothing short of sensational, averaging a career high 24.1 points per game on a career best 62.5 true shooting percentage, leading Charlotte’s young squad to a surprising start.

He has continued to be a terrific marksman from deep, shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range as he builds upon his resurgence in that area a year ago in Boston, where he shot just north of 38 percent, but it’s what he’s doing off the bounce and inside the arc that has been the most impressive. Hayward is getting to the rim at a higher rate (23.4 percent of his shot attempts) than at any point since he became a primary weapon in Utah, which some wondered if that would be possible after his injury. His game-winner against Orlando on Sunday night, capping off a 39-point, 9-rebound performance, showed how, while not the most explosive player on the floor, he is still terrific at setting up an opponent with his handle to get by them and get to the rim.

The tight crossover going left has been a favorite of Hayward’s all season, freezing defenders and allowing him to get a step on them into the paint to get to the basket or force a rotation to create a drop-off pass to a wide-open big man.

Part of why he’s able to get to the rim like this is that he’s also having his best midrange shooting season of his career, which means defenders can’t sag off of him, especially in a late-game situation as he’s been lethal on the pull-up. Hayward is shooting a rather ridiculous 55.3 percent from 10-16 feet and 46.2 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line, both career-best figures (via Basketball-Reference), and as evidenced by Evan Fournier’s defense on Sunday, opponents are taking note and adjusting to try and eat into his airspace in those areas of the floor.

There’s a decisiveness and confidence to Hayward’s game this season that hasn’t necessarily been there in recent years, as he knows he has the green light and is more than willing to use that when he gets the ball in a spot he likes. Playing with other creators like LaMelo Ball, Devonte’ Graham, and Terry Rozier allows him to work off the ball as he grew accustomed to in Boston, but when he gets the ball from them he appears to be more confident in going straight up for a shot rather than considering if there’s a better shot to be had.

Take these two plays from earlier in the season against the Knicks, where he catches the ball and immediately rises and fires from the short midrange.

They aren’t anything jaw-dropping, but they’re the type of play that show the confidence Hayward is playing with and the comfort he has already with this new team in being their offensive leader. He’s embraced the pace of Charlotte’s young team, happy to run the floor in transition, but provides them with a much needed steady hand in the halfcourt when the opposing defense does get set. With four 30-point games already this season, he’s just one behind the number of 30-point games he had in his entire tenure with the Celtics, and he’s doing so efficiently and in a way that’s impacting winning.

The Hornets currently sit in a tie for ninth in the East, just percentage points behind the Knicks for eighth, and expectations in Charlotte have to have shifted a bit to real belief that they could make the play-in tournament at the end of the season. It will take the continued growth of their young talent, but the play of Hayward (and fellow former Celtic Terry Rozier) provides them with a baseline of competence and competitiveness that is higher than most anticipated.