When healthy, Gordon Hayward has been a reliable scoring option for the Charlotte Hornets and one of the team’s best players overall. Unfortunately, the “when healthy” qualifier has been used often in the last two seasons.
Since signing a four-year, $120M contract with the Hornets in the midst of the pandemic, Hayward has appeared in 93 out of 154 regular season games (2020-21 was a 72-game season), good for 60.3 percent of possible games played. While that is certainly not ideal — no injury is — the timing of his injuries were probably a bigger detriment than the recovery time and individual games lost. The team’s veteran closer and best two-way wing missing 28 games in the early or middle portions of the season is easier to manage than him missing the stretch run for a young team that’s making a late push to win play-in tournament games on the road in order to land the 8-seed.
Hayward quietly looked really good in the last two preseason games after missing the first three with a knee contusion. Again, it would be nice if not only Hayward but every athlete could participate in all exhibition and regular season contests, but playing in two out of five preseason games is fair for a 32-year-old with a history of lower-body injuries. He put up six points in 12 minutes against Washington and finished with 16 points, seven boards, a steal and three blocks in the finale versus Philadelphia, in which he made two threes, a 16-footer and three shots at the rim. Hayward’s three-level scoring will be more crucial to the Hornets’ offensive success than ever this season.
Gordon Hayward is in his bag tonight— NBA (@NBA) October 13, 2022
16 PTS | 7 REB | 3 BLK pic.twitter.com/fVClEP7D6D
Especially with LaMelo Ball sidelined to start the season, Hayward’s statistical output could rebound towards early-Charlotte levels and head coach Steve Clifford has stated that there will likely be a load management plan implemented for him this season, hopefully giving him a stronger chance to remain on the floor in the long-term himself. Last season, he averaged 15.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game — those numbers are going to rise.
Steve Clifford hints that Gordon Hayward will likely be load managed this season pic.twitter.com/5f7lzcI5Zj— Hornets Coverage (@hornetscoverage) October 11, 2022
Still, it’s hard to predict exactly what Hayward’s role will be since we haven’t seen this roster play without Ball in a while, but he’s a clear-cut top-two player on the team as things stand. Terry Rozier will be listed as the starting point guard, but it’d be fun to see Hayward shoulder some responsibility as an initiator in halfcourt sets. He can make the necessary reads out of ball screens and is willing to move the ball along quickly while offering versatile shot creation at all three levels to keep defenses honest. There were a couple of defensive possessions against the Sixers where he was directing traffic for his teammates too, which didn’t happen that often the last two seasons.
Equipped with health, a fresh new haircut and that trusty, vintage old man game, we could be getting an idealized version of Hayward this season; and with how things have gone the last few months, it doesn’t hurt to hope, either.