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2020-21 Hornets season preview: Gordon Hayward

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Hayward comes to town as Charlotte’s biggest free agency signing in... ever?

2020-21 Charlotte Hornets Content Day Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s get this squared away; yes, the Hornets overpaid for Gordon Hayward, and yes, it’s still a good signing.

Not to be that guy, but the Hornets play in one of the smallest markets in the NBA, if not the smallest. To get a player that brings Hayward’s level of recognition, pedigree and talent, Charlotte has to offer significantly more money than any other team eleven times out of ten, and that’s what Mitch Kupchak decided to do with Hayward. They got “their guy” and still have cap space for a max-ish level contract next off-season to go with a large core of young players and all of their own draft picks. It’s not the fans’ contract to pay, MJ will take care of that. So, let’s just enjoy basketball.

Hayward’s signing ushers in a “new era” for the Hornets organization. They have their future star in LaMelo Ball to go with established young players like Devonte’ Graham, PJ Washington and Miles Bridges, and can now throw all of them under Hayward’s wing while he’s the de facto No. 1 option as the rest of the team develops. A veteran Kemba Walker, through no fault of his own, was never surrounded with the combination of present-day skill and future potential that Hayward is right now.

For better or for worse, there has been a philosophical shift in the way Charlotte’s front office operates. They won’t be vying for the top lottery odds, nor will they be scrapping to the eight-seed year in and year out. The Charlotte Hornets are pushing to be a legitimate factor in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and for now that starts with Hayward.

Of course, Hayward has spent more time off the court than on it since he left Utah for Boston, and the Hornets’ overall success hinges on his health. There’s no telling whether or not he’ll be available to contribute often-enough until it actually happens, but the bright side is that the ankle he sprained in the bubble has had plenty of time to heal, and his other two injuries (broken hand last Nov. and the ankle injury in 2017) were freak injuries. As of now, Hayward’s health is not a concern and it’ll remain that way unless proven otherwise.

As a fourth option with the Celtics, Hayward’s per-36 minute stats were very similar to those from his All-Star season in 2016-2017 that earned him his first max contract;

His true shooting percentage was 59.5 for both of those seasons, and his usage rate was 27.6 in Utah compared to 21.1 in Boston, so essentially he was a more efficient scorer, a better rebounder, and a better passer than he was as an All-Star, though he didn’t put up as many points, but that can be attributed to a lack of free-throw generation caused by lowered usage. It’s clear that Hayward is very close to his peak when healthy and given ample opportunity, which he will have right away in Charlotte; an All-Star berth, or getting close to it, is not out of the question.

Last season, Hayward shot 69 percent at the rim (85th percentile), 47 percent in the mid-range (87th percentile) and 38 percent on non-corner 3-pointers (76th percentile) with only 58 percent of his field goals being assisted (82nd percentile), per Cleaning the Glass. He slides in Charlotte’s bona fide isolation scorer that can get to his spots at all three levels and be relied upon to get a bucket in crunch time, while also being the team’s secondary playmaker toting an assist percentage of 18 (90th percentile) per Cleaning the Glass. His unselfishness and ability to switch between the ‘3’ and ‘4’ spots (he is not a shooting guard) fits beside literally every player on the roster.

As a floor-spacing wing/forward hybrid, his shooting gravity opens driving lanes and creates space to attack the paint for LaMelo and Malik, while his court vision and penchant for getting into the teeth of the defense will cause opponents to sag too far off of Devonte’ and Terry while they bury open threes. He can play the ‘3’ with Miles at the ‘4’, he can play the ‘4’ with the Martins on the wing, or he can act as the point forward in a small-ball lineup. The lineup combinations are nearly endless thanks to Hayward’s versatility.

For as critical of the optics and future implications of this signing as people can be, there is absolutely no argument to be made that Hayward is anything but a fantastic on-court fit with this team. He can be the No. 1 for now, which he does with a team-friendly style that facilitates development of his young teammates, and then when LaMelo and the others are ready, he can slowly fade into the second, third, or fourth option that he often was with Boston — and never once complained about.

After years of guaranteed mediocrity (or worse), Hornets fans can at least have hope now. The amount of money Hayward is being paid won’t mean jack if he helps bring this team to the play-in tournament and gives them a shot to make the playoffs because it’ll help establish Charlotte as a destination for big-name free agents and the young guys will have played in games that actually matter. Perhaps someday, the Hornets won’t have to overpay notable free agents to lure them to Charlotte. Hayward could end up being the reason why.