Boston Celtics

Celtics need the best version of Gordon Hayward

Nearly two years removed from a gruesome broken leg, the Boston Celtics need Gordon Hayward to step up.

After signing a four-year, $128 million deal in July of 2017, Gordon Hayward’s first season with the Boston Celtics lasted all of five minutes before a severe broken leg sidelined him. A run to the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals without Hayward and Kyrie Irving set high expectations for the Celtics heading into last season.

But it was not to be. The Celtics won 49 games, then lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in five games in the second round of the playoffs. Hayward played in 72 games during the regular season, starting 18, but he was clearly not quite himself, as he averaged 11.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.

The Celtics notably lost Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Terry Rozier this offseason. They swapped Kemba Walker for Irving, but Enes Kanter is a clear downgrade from Horford. Boston will be counting on marked improvement from Jayson Tatum in his third season, and Jaylen Brown reaching another level as well.

Hayward’s leg injury is comparable to the one Paul George suffered playing for Team USA in 2014. He said it took him two years to feel confident again, and somewhere around opening night will be the exact second anniversary of when Hayward was injured.

In four April regular season games last year, Hayward averaged 18.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game with an uptick in playing time (31.2 minutes per game). Widening out a bit, he shot 60 percent from the floor and averaged 14.7 points per game over his last four regular season games. In the playoffs, he scored in double figures five times in Boston’s first seven games.

Hayward is due to make $32.7 million in 2019-20, with a $34.18 million player option for 2020-21. He was involved in some level of trade rumors this summer, but the Celtics didn’t overhaul their roster as it was thought they might.

Next: 2019-20 NBA Schedule: 5 potential revenge games

Hayward averaged between 19-22 points in each of his final three seasons with the Utah Jazz, which bolstered his free agent stock. His reunion with college coach Brad Steven hasn’t gone according to plan, but a healthier, productive version of Hayward will be vital to the Celtics’ effort to reach post-hype expectations during the 2019-20 season.

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