Hornets are better with healthy Gordon Hayward in the lineup

Hornets forward Gordon Hayward dunks the ball during the game against the Bulls at Spectrum Center on Thursday, January 26, 2023.

Hornets forward Gordon Hayward dunks the ball during the game against the Bulls at Spectrum Center on Thursday, January 26, 2023.


Arms spread and resting on a couple of courtside seats, Gordon Hayward flashed a grin as he pondered the Charlotte Hornets’ recent success.

“It’s fun winning,” Hayward said Tuesday. “We need to do that more.”

There hasn’t been a whole lot of that for the Hornets over the past three months. They’ve emerged victorious in successive games just three times, and their longest streak of the season stands at a measly two leading into their matchup with Milwaukee at Fiserv Forum.

Hayward’s play was key in both of those wins, and he left his imprint on the action on both sides of the floor, bouncing back after missing the finale of the Hornets’ four-game road trip in Phoenix and eight of their previous 10 outings nursing a sore left hamstring. He posted a combined 37 points and connected on 13 of 17 attempts in their two wins prior to taking on the Bucks, easily his best stretch in a while.

“It was good to be out there just on the court,” Hayward said. “It seems like it’s been a struggle this season just to get on the court. The more I’m out there, the more of a rhythm I’m going to get. Just being able to find one go in early and get another easy one and then a layup, it just helps me get going.”

Which, in turn, makes the Hornets undeniably better.

“Yeah, I think that when I’m playing the way I’m capable of, we are a dangerous team,” Hayward said. “We’ve got a lot of weapons and a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things. So, hopefully I can build off that last one.”

In making all seven field goal attempts to go with a 3-for-3 showing from both the free throw and 3-point lines, Hayward etched his name into Hornets’ history. He’s the first player in franchise history to total at least 20 points while recording 100% shooting splits in points, free throws and shots beyond the 3-point arc.

That’s why the Hornets are encouraged to see Hayward rounding into form after being sidelined for 26 games while battling a variety of ailments that affected nearly every portion of his 32-year-old body.

“No. 1, it shows how focused he’s been with the way he’s had to deal with different injuries, but also how he rehabs” coach Steve Clifford said. “Because even right now, he’s not 100%. To watch the film (from Sunday) and even at the end a little bit, there’s not a limp but you can definitely see how he’s not 100%. But his details, and more than anything, it’s his basic basketball instincts and it’s not just offense.

“The other night his offensive efficiency was great because of the way he shot the ball. But he makes the right play, he moves the ball freely to teammates when they are open.”

And they’re appreciative.

“He’s playing confident,” PJ Washington said. “He’s getting easy baskets and bullying guys down low, just playing great basketball. I expect that from him every night because he’s a great player and he’s capable of that.”

It’s not all about offense for Hayward, though.

On defense, he’s integral. He serves as a pseudo-assistant coach and assists with the coverages on the floor, allowing the Hornets to be better organized.

Overall, their defense improved by 6.9 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court.

“He’s guarding the opposing team, one of their best players every night that he is playing,” Terry Rozier said. “So, he’s active defensively and offensively and helping our team get to where we need to get to.

“I’m a huge G. fan. I’m a big G. supporter. I know how much he wants to be out there with us on any given night. Dealing with injuries is not easy. But obviously, you see when we do have our full potential and him being one of those main guys what we can do. It’s just always good to have another leader out there and a non-selfish guy.”

In order for the Hornets to keep things moving in the right direction, Hayward has to continue being an all-around cog that provides a boost in various aspects. A one-dimensional version of himself is not an option, and the veteran knows it.

Leaving his mark on the action is a necessity if the Hornets are going to have a real chance against their opponents. There’s no debate.

“Yeah, I think that’s the important thing for me as a player,” Hayward said. “It’s kind of how I’ve always been. I think I’ve kind of been able to morphing into different roles over the course of my career. For us, for our team, it could be different roles on different nights because we do have a lot of guys that can score. So, there’s other things that I can do to help us win if other guys are rolling.”

Ensuring he’s vocal so the Hornets clean up their defense is among Hayward’s larger tasks.

“We’ve got to do better, we’ve got to be more consistent defensively,” Hayward said. “I think we’ve shown stretches of it. I think the more we are on top of the defensive end, it allows us to get out and run. That’s one of our biggest strengths, is running and using our speed and our multiple ball-handlers to get up and really put pressure on the defense. But if we are not getting stops, we can’t do that.”

This story was originally published January 31, 2023 3:28 PM.

Roderick Boone joined the Observer in September 2021 to cover the Charlotte Hornets and NBA. In his more than two decades of writing about the world of sports, he’s chronicled everything from high school rodeo to a major league baseball no-hitter to the Super Bowl to the Finals. The Long Island native has deep North Carolina roots and enjoys watching “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” endlessly.
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