It looked like Gordon Hayward was finally on the verge of rediscovering his old self. Little signs of progress had popped up during the first two-plus months of the season—the first time he propelled off his left foot for a dunk, the first time he caught a lob pass from a teammate and slammed it through the rim, the first time he gathered, went up strong, got fouled and was able to stabilize his body by landing on his once-dislocated left ankle—but this four-game stretch to kick off 2019 was, well, different.
Hayward welcomed in the new year by lighting up the Minnesota Timberwolves for a season-high 35 points. He registered double-figure scoring marks in his next three games after that.
Sure, he wasn't quite the dynamic creator who'd been named an All-Star in 2016-17 and was handed a four-year, $128 million contract by the Boston Celtics. But this was the closest Hayward had come to resembling that player since his injury. He was attacking the paint. He was gliding around screens and fluidly uncorking pull-up jumpers. He was dunking the ball in transition. The Celtics, pegged by most experts before the season as Eastern Conference favorites, were surging. Hayward, in his new role off the bench, was one of the reasons why.
This is how the arc usually goes, right? Athlete suffers gruesome injury, puts in the hours rehabbing and returns the following year as a feel-good story. Except that's not how life works.
Hayward followed up that four-game streak by taking just seven shots and scoring just six points in a blowout loss to the Miami Heat on national TV. He followed that up with another subpar performance in a loss to the Magic; he only scored eight points and was chastised by teammate Kyrie Irving for his decision to inbound the ball to Jayson Tatum on the Celtics' final play.
"There have been some low moments," Hayward told Bleacher Report two days later, before a Celtics practice in Brooklyn.
Boston was slated to play the Nets that night, and Irving, the team's ball-dominant star, was slated to miss the game because of an injury. So was Marcus Smart, another Celtics guard. This was a night on which the Celtics needed Hayward; he'd be given the freedom to run the offense and impose his will. Instead, he spent the evening wandering the perimeter, attempting a meager six shots, hitting just one and finishing with three points in an ugly loss, the Celtics' third straight. Once again, the team was reeling, sliding down the ranks of the Eastern Conference. Once again, Hayward was reeling, too.
If you want to know what the cliche one step forward, two steps back looks like in real life, ask Gordon Hayward about his recovery. The saga started last October on the night of the NBA's season-opener. You've seen clips of the play, of Hayward landing awkwardly following an attempted alley-oop against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He dislocated his left ankle and fractured his left tibia on the fall. The injuries required surgery. The recovery caused Hayward to miss the entire season. The plan was to return over the summer. By springtime, Hayward was jumping and shooting and cutting. But he was also feeling pain around his ankle. Doctors determined that removing the plate and screws, which had been inserted into his leg during his initial surgery, gave him his best chance of recovery.
Hayward's leg was cut open again.
"I think there's definitely doubt that comes after you have a major injury like that, you kind of want it to go right back to the way it was, but that's not the reality of the situation," Hayward said. "You know it's going to be a work in progress. I'm happy that I'm out here on the court so I try to find some joy in that."
It's a process much easier to envision than actually see through. Not many 28-year-olds are equipped to deal with the realization that their primary skill set has been taken away. But subjecting a person wired like Hayward to such an ordeal seems especially cruel.
"Gordon's a perfectionist," his agent Mark Bartelstein said in a phone interview. "He has no patience when it comes to himself." That tendency to shrewdly self-assess shows up after almost every Celtics game, when Hayward and Bartelstein speak over the phone about Hayward's play. On good days, the calls are shorter. "He's not interested in talking much after he plays well," Bartelstein said. "He's much more likely to beat himself up after a bad game."
Hayward's patience was waning almost immediately after he began his rehab process. Barred from five-on-five action, he spent his summer working out in various gyms on the West Coast, shooting jumpers and playing lighter games of one-on-one. And even then, he'd grow frustrated over the lingering rust clinging to his twice-surgically repaired left leg.
"He would say that he doesn't feel right, that he doesn't have that first step quite yet," said his Celtics teammate Semi Ojeleye, who trained with Hayward in San Diego. "He'd say that he remembers what he was before the injury and that he's not that yet."
Hayward's numbers are down across the board (he's averaging 10.9 points in 26.4 minutes per game, compared to the 21.9 points and 34.5 minutes he averaged during his last season with the Utah Jazz). The drop-off was expected. Not only is Hayward still working his way back to full strength, but he's also on a new team in a new system.
"We're asking him to play a different role than he's used to as he returns to form," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said.
In Utah, everything on offense ran through him. His usage rate of 27.6 percent was one of the highest marks in the league. In Boston, however, Hayward is in a pass-heavy system surrounded by scorers. Sometimes, it's his job to attack; sometimes, he is expected to space the floor. Early in the year, he was starting; now, he's coming off the bench.
Not surprisingly, the adjustment has been clunky, both for Hayward and his Celtics teammates who carried the team to the Eastern Conference Finals last season despite Hayward's absence.
But things like fit and system are secondary concerns when it comes to Hayward's on-court resurgence. Hayward acknowledges that he's played timidly this season. He's driving the ball to the basket just 5.3 times per game and finishing a below-average 57 percent of his looks at the rim. Two seasons ago, he averaged 9.2 drives per game and shot 67 percent at the rim, one of the best marks in the league.
"I think most of that is probably from a lack of confidence in going to the basket and challenging bigs—especially at the beginning of the year," Hayward said. "I think that's the last part that's not all the way back yet.
"Moving horizontally, I'm definitely starting to feel like I felt a couple years ago, but vertically I'm still not as confident as I want to be, and I think some of that is a deterrent when I go to the rim."
Hayward only knows one way to push through. "Just get into the gym, it's what I've always done," he said. He gets extra shots up before and after practice. He pores over film with both Bartelstein and the Celtics coaches. "He's burning the candle at both ends," Bartelstein said. "Figuring out how to get back to an All-Star level." Bartelstein and Stevens say they have no doubt that at some point over the next year, he'll return to his previous form. The Celtics likely need him to if they intend to make a Finals run.
Yet Hayward, despite the repeated assurances from those around him, still often finds himself drifting between confidence and self-doubt.
It's during those low moments that he tries to focus on all the progress he's made. There's an example he keeps lodged in the back of his mind. Earlier this season, "I went up to try blocking a shot and came down on my left a little bit awkwardly, and, you know, I felt it," he recalled. The feeling left Hayward spooked.
But he moved on, and a few games later, he had another chance to swat an opponent's shot. This time, he geared up, jumped and landed with little fanfare. "I thought about my leg but only for a second and was able to keep playing," he said. "The time after that, none of that stuff"—his injuries, his surgeries, his distrust of his body—"even crossed my mind."
"Those are the moments," he added, "where I'm like, It's going to be all good."