Hayward finding success in more prominent role with Hornets

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Charlotte Hornets forward Gordon Hayward, left, looks to pass against Minnesota Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — In a time when many veteran NBA players are doing anything they can to join a “super team” in hopes of winning a championship, Gordon Hayward is a bit of an anomaly.

Hayward took the road less traveled this offseason when he opted out of his contract with the high-profile Celtics and chose to come to Charlotte to take on a more prominent role and the opportunity to help build a young Hornets team into a playoff contender.

So far, so good.

The 11-year NBA veteran is averaging a career-high 22.3 points along with 5.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game for the playoff-starved Hornets, who are 13-15 and in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Hayward, an All-Star in 2017, is ninth in All-Star balloting among frontcourt players in the East.

“I wanted to go somewhere where I could maximize who I am as a basketball player again,” he said. “Certainly the responsibility here is more, and I’m embracing that.”

Hayward said the decision to leave Boston and sign a four-year, $120 million contract with Charlotte wasn’t easy, given it meant uprooting his family again.

But after talking with Hornets owner Michael Jordan, general manager Mitch Kupchak and coach James Borrego, he felt it was a chance worth taking.

“The challenge of going to a team that is really young but really talented and trying to help them get to that next level was something that was really enticing to me,” Hayward said. “I just decided to go for it — and it has been great ever since.”

Jordan tried to lure Hayward to Charlotte before, signing him to a four-year, $63 million offer sheet in 2014 when he was a restricted free agent, but Hayward’s first team, the Utah Jazz, matched the offer.

The Hornets were thrilled when he decided to come to Charlotte this time around.

“The biggest thing is that he’s been a gem as a playmaker,” Borrego said of the 6-foot-7 Hayward. “He’s got the size. In this league, we needed someone with size that can make plays and his play-making is the best thing that he does. He loves to share the ball, move the ball. He loves passing the ball.”

Hayward said he likes how unselfishly the Hornets play.

Charlotte is second in the league in assists, averaging 27.5 per game. And he’s thriving in his role, shooting 51.5% from the field and 42.2% from 3-point range.

“I’m loving the style of play,” Hayward said. “We are moving the ball, I’m able to cut, play with the ball and off the ball … .”

When the Hornets need a basket in the fourth quarter, they often defer to Hayward. And he’s been there to rescue them from bad possessions with the shot clock winding down on a number of occasions.

“The system, the way they’re using him, clearly he doesn’t look like he’s been there a short time,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “He looks like he’s very comfortable. I’m happy that he’s fallen into a mindset and an opportunity where he has because he’s worked hard to get where he is.”

Hayward jokes that at 30, he’s now “an old guy” in basketball years, but said that being around young players like rookie LaMelo Ball, Devonte Graham, P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges has helped reenergize him.

He said it was the “fresh start” that he needed.

“It seems like yesterday that I was these guys — I was the young guy,” Hayward said with a laugh. “I think Raja Bell was 34 when I was a rookie and I remember thinking, ‘Man, he is old.’ And now I have a family and kids and these guys are the young guns.”

Hayward said his sole focus is on helping the Hornets end a four-year playoff drought.

With a shortened offseason, it took some time for everyone to fall into their roles, he said.

But he believes the team is getting better as the season progresses.

“We have had some flashes of being really good,” Hayward said. “We have beaten some good teams and had successful moments. And then we have had some bad moments as well. And that is a product of us being young. We have to learn to be more consistent, me included.”

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