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NBA Sunday: The Ascension of Marc Gasol

No longer ‘Pau’s little brother,’ it’s time to call Marc Gasol something else: the best center in the NBA.

Moke Hamilton

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Way back in 2001—before his move to Germantown, Tennessee and long before his older brother became an NBA Champion—Marc Gasol was merely a figment of his own imagination.

Long before he became the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and long before he became renowned as one of the top centers in the NBA, he was simply known as “Pau’s little brother,” before being affectionately referred to as “The Big Burrito.”

But today, you call him something else—the best center in the NBA.

It has been a long 13 years.

In 2001, as Marc heard his older brother’s name called during the NBA Draft and saw him immediately traded by the Atlanta Hawks to the Vancouver Grizzlies for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, it was only in Marc’s wildest dreams that he could imagine himself one day playing a primary role in his older brother being traded for a second time in his career, but on February 1, 2008, that’s exactly what happened.

But even before then—before his professional career began with FC Barcelona—Marc was quietly persevering in a new country, new environment and, frankly, a new world.

Back in 2001, after relocating from Barcelona to Tennessee with his parents, Marc enrolled at Lausanne Collegiate High School in Memphis and immediately earned the reputation for being a reserved, lucid student of the game. Sporadically working out with his older brother, Marc enjoyed standout years in high school before beginning stints with the Spanish National Basketball team and in Spain’s Liga ACB.

He refined his game, entwining the skill set required of an American big man with those necessary of a go-to pivot-man in a more Eurocentric playing style. The duality of his playing experiences, both in the United States and in international play for Spain, paid major dividends.

Before long, Marc found himself on the radar of a few international scouts in the NBA before the Los Angeles Lakers selected him with the 48th pick of 2007 NBA Draft.

Seven years later, no longer is Mark referred to merely as “Pau’s little brother.”

He slowly began to outgrow that shadow. Today, he towers above it.

——

On the continuum from glossy-eyed neophyte to perennial All-Star, the 29-year-old has both paid his due and put in the work. And as his Memphis Grizzlies close out the first 12 games of the NBA season with the Western Conference’s best record, it is Gasol who has emerged as the primary catalyst for his team’s success.

With amazing stature, the younger Gasol is the little brother only by virtue of his birthright, not his size. Standing at 7’1 and weighing in at 265 pounds, Marc is the antithesis of today’s svelte NBA center, but he is light on his feet, nimble and has amazing footwork for a man of his size.

His international experience is evidenced in his game. He possesses the underrated and under-discussed skill of being able to effectively read pick-and-roll coverages and simultaneously possesses the ability to both roll to the basket and catch and finish with either hand as well as step out and comfortably hit a jumper as far as 18 feet away.

His growing up observing the American style of play that was mostly seen around the league in the early 2000s is apparent, as Gasol has footwork and a back-to-the-basket game that is reminiscent of some of his predecessors that served as their team’s primary playmakers from the pivot.

In flashes, you can see remnants of Rik Smits, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and even Shaquille O’Neal.

Today, as the NBA relishes in the “Golden Age of the Point Guard,” the traditional big man has become an endangered species.

That makes Gasol all the more valuable, particularly when he is set to become a free agent in July 2015.

This season, as he plays out the final year of the four-year, $57 million extension he signed to remain with the Grizzlies in December 2011, he has emerged as not only the top center prospect of the free agent class of 2015, but arguably the top free agent overall.

By virtue of his $15.8 million salary this season, Gasol will be eligible for a maximum salary of $16.6 million in the first year of his next contract. A maximum offer from the Grizzlies would be somewhere in the neighborhood of five years and $95 million.

Before the beginning of the 2014-15 season, whether or not Gasol would be worth that type of investment could have led to a very reasonable debate, especially as the center inches toward his 30th birthday in January. However, a confluence of events—the NBA’s new television deal, the Grizzlies thriving as the West’s top team and Gasol’s increased productivity—almost make the debate a futile one.

In short, any NBA team that is truly serious about competing for an NBA Championship could not and should not allow a talent like Gasol to end up elsewhere if it can at all be avoided. That is especially true considering the financial flexibility the Grizzlies have maintained by strategically inking Zach Randolph to a cap-friendly, two-year, $20 million extension that is set to kick in next season.

With just $41 million in guaranteed salaries on their books next season, the Grizzlies have the funds available to re-sign Gasol without necessarily hitting the luxury tax. With his improved productivity this season and their entering play after four weeks of regular season action as the top team out in the Western Conference, the reasoning for re-signing him should be readily apparent, as well.

And that comes much to the chagrin of Phil Jackson and his New York Knicks.

——

After being named the President of Basketball Operations for the New York Knicks back in March 2014, Jackson immediately let it be known that he was a proponent of “system basketball” and that he would do his best to implement the triangle offense in New York City. That offense, obviously, helped him win 11 NBA Championships as a head coach in Chicago and Los Angeles.

One thing Jackson knows better than anyone else, though, is that a successful triangle requires at least two dynamic sides. After re-signing Carmelo Anthony this past summer to a five-year contract worth about $124 million, Jackson has one.

Now, phase two of Jackson’s grandiose plan will continue in July 2015. Armed with cap space, it is a poorly kept secret that Marc Gasol is Jackson’s Plan A.

The subject was discussed when Pau and his Chicago Bulls visited New York City to do battle with the Knicks during the first week of the 2014-15 season, with Pau agreeing that it was “possible” that his younger brother could end up as a member of the Knicks. Pau also divulged that the two have spoken about Jackson in the past.

As the NBA’s Lord of the Rings, Jackson knows a thing or two about what it takes to win at the highest level in the league and as the master of the triangle offense, he knows that running it at a championship level requires a pivot-man with special virtues.

Jackson requires another front court player than can effectively play with his back to the basket, keep opposing defenses honest and pass from the post and make plays for his teammates.

In a word, that player is Gasol, so it doesn’t necessarily take a rocket scientist to figure out that Jackson and his front office will be among the first teams on Marc’s doorstep come July 1. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they will offer Gasol a maximum-allowable four-year, $71 million non-Bird contract.

Across the league, there will be scores of other teams lining up to throw offers and scenarios at Pau’s younger brother. As arguably the most skilled big man in the NBA today, he has emerged as the apple of many front office’s eyes, particularly in a world where most NBA teams employ one-dimensional starting centers who lack “traditional” big man skills.

Still, the summer is quite a ways off. For Gasol and his Grizzlies, the focus remains on the present.

——

One thing that has proven to be true, quite consistently for that matter, is that tomorrow is promised to no one.

Back in the 2009 NBA Playoffs, when Derrick Rose gave the Boston Celtics all they could handle in a seven-game first round playoff series, we all imagined how bright the future would be for the Rose-led Chicago Bulls.

Five years and a myriad of injuries later, we continue to qualify the designations of the Bulls being the team to beat with “if they are healthy.”

Back in 2012, when LeBron James ascended to the throne of the NBA, James Harden’s miserable performance in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s five-game NBA Finals defeat was shrugged off by many as growing pains. We were certain that the Thunder would be a fixture in the NBA Finals.

Four months later, with Harden dealt to the Rockets, everything changed.

And now, as Thanksgiving nears and the 2014-15 season is well underway, it is at this point that we can begin to surmise the true identity of some of the NBA’s tougher teams. It is at this point that we can begin to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

As we peruse the landscape, we see that the Eastern Conference is being led by the Toronto Raptors. The Bulls are still in search of the health necessary of a champion and the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers are experiencing some appreciable growing pains. Out West, we know that the Thunder face a very real challenge in recovering from the injuries to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and that the recently revealed knee ailment that is plaguing Dwight Howard could open things up to a batch of contenders not previously thought to have the talent necessary to contend for the NBA Championship.

The Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and even Dallas Mavericks certainly expect to have a puncher’s chance at competing for the Western Conference’s crown.

Meanwhile, lurking in the shadows no more, with a bruising front line, pesky perimeter defense and an improved bench platoon being led by a few veterans, the Grizzlies have completed the first lap of the NBA season with a firm grasp on the attention of the entire league.

And it is behind Marc Gasol, no longer known as “Pau’s little brother,” that the dream of the Grizzlies playing into June and triumphantly emerging as NBA Champions is legitimate.

Indeed, way back in 2001, with his older brother serving as a shining example, his international experience and dedicated work ethic has helped Marc Gasol become more than he himself probably imagined.

With his Memphis Grizzlies and their improbable rise among the West’s giants, he is something new all together.

Today, lurking in the shadows no more, he is his own man. Truthfully, he is now the superior Gasol.

Today, finally, we can safely say that he has fulfilled his promise.

Today, finally, we can say that he has emerged as the best center in the game.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA All-Star Friday Recap

Basketball Insiders recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2019, which featured a four-point shot and a deep pool of talent in the Rising Stars Challenge.

Matt John

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NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game had a variety of big names to trot out on Friday night. This list included former NBA players such as Ray Allen and Jay Williams, current WNBA players Stefanie Dolson and A’ja Wilson, entertainers such as JB Smoove, Mike Colter, and Hassan Minhaj, and last year’s MVP, Quavo.

The Home Team was coached by WNBA legend Dawn Staley while the Away Team was coached by WNBA superstar Sue Bird.

Team Staley pulled ahead multiple times throughout the game, but every run they made was followed by a run by Team Bird. Team Bird’s comeback attempt fell short as Team Staley ultimately won 82-80.

Internet Comedian Famous Los led the way for Team Staley, scoring a team-high 22 points on 10-16 shooting while dishing out three assists in the team’s victory. Jay Williams razzled and dazzled as well, scoring 18 points on 8-15 shooting while dishing out five assists – including this beauty.

What could have been with Jay Williams…

Quavo topped his performance last year for Team Staley, scoring a game-high 27 points in total, highlighted by what may very well be the only five-point play to ever happen in an NBA-sponsored basketball game. Quavo shot 13-19 from the field while also corralling nine rebounds as well. Ray Allen also put up a vintage performance, putting up 24 points on 11-21 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists.

There were a few interesting wrinkles to this game. A four-point shot was implemented in which $4,000 would be donated to charity for each shot made from distance. Ten four-pointers were made in the game, totaling $40,000 in charity donations.

Two more fun facts: We didn’t even get a tip-off in this game. Comedian Brad Williams stole the ball from the ref to start it off. Also, just because it’s a harmless exhibition does not mean participants won’t get into it. JB Smoove and Hassan Minhaj got a little testy at the end of the first quarter.

Other participants included:

From Team Bird: Ronnie 2K (Director of influencer marketing, 2K Sports), AJ Buckley (Actor, “SEAL Team”), Bad Bunny (Singer), Marc Lasry (Milwaukee Bucks’ Co-Owner), Adam Ray (Host of About Last Night), Amanda Seales (Actor/Comedian), James Shaw Jr. (Hometown Hero), Brad Williams (Host of About Last Night)

From Team Staley: Chris Daughtry (Singer), Terrence Jenkins (TV Personality/Actor), Dr. Oz (TV Personality), Rapsody (Rapper), Bo Rinehart (Musician), Steve Smith (Former NFL Player), Jason Weissman (Hometown Hero)

MTN DEW ICE Rising Stars

If last year’s Rising Stars game had an overabundance of talent, this one may have very well topped it. That’s how loaded this year’s class was.

Let’s start with what could be a preview for what’s to come next year: Luka Doncic’s performance. More specifically, his connection with Lauri Markaanen. Throughout the first quarter, Doncic found Markaanen everywhere, either for easy alley-oops or wide open threes on the pick and pop.

Why bring this up? Because this is exactly what we could expect to see from Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis when they share the court together, as Markaanen has a similar skill set offensively to Porzingis’.

As for the game itself, Team USA jumped out to a 12-point lead at the half, thanks primarily to the likes of Jayson Tatum (16 points on 6-12 shooting) and Kyle Kuzma (21 points on 10-16 shooting).

Team World wouldn’t go down without a fight. In the third quarter, they managed to cut the deficit down to a point thanks primarily to Doncic and Ben Simmons’  collective efforts, but that was as close as they got. Team USA pulled away in the fourth quarter as they went on to win 161-144.

Simmons led the way for Team World, as he finished with 30 points on 14-17 shooting on a squad where, outside of Simmons, the scoring was pretty well spread out as Doncic, Markaanen, DeAndre Ayton, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rodney Kurucs, OG Annonuby, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Okogie all had 10 points or more.

Team USA had a few standouts, including Kuzma (35 points on 15-27 shooting), Tatum (30 points on 12-24 shooting), Donovan Mitchell (20 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), and Trae Young (25 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds). All were deserving of the MVP, but the award ultimately went to Kuzma.

Tonight, we go a little deeper into All-Star Weekend with the Dunk Contest, Three-Point Shooting Contest, and the Skills Challenge. Stay tuned!

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NBA Daily: Can Tobias Harris Put the 76ers Over the Top?

Shane Rhodes breaks down whether the addition of Tobias Harris can push the 76ers into the NBA Finals.

Shane Rhodes

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The Philadelphia 76ers made perhaps the biggest move of trade season when they acquired Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers. Harris, in the midst of a career year, was on the path to a lucrative contract come this summer. But, with an uncertain future in Los Angeles, Philadelphia capitalized and made their move to win now.

In doing so, the 76ers have put together, arguably, the most talented starting roster in the Eastern Conference. But what exactly does Harris bring to the team, and can he put them over the top of their competition in the East?

Harris has very much looked the part of an All-Star this season and has given Brett Brown and the 76ers coaching staff yet another weapon with which to attack defenses. The 26-year-old has posted career highs in points (20.7), rebounds (7.8) and assists (2.8) per game, field goal percentage (49.7) and three-point percentage (43.0) this season and should prove a significant upgrade over Wilson Chandler, who was sent to Los Angeles in the trade, on both offense and defense.

In a superior lineup, his Harris’ play should only improve as well.

His statistical values may dip with the move to Philadelphia, but, in a way, the team may look at that as a positive; with so many talents on the floor together, Brown, in theory, should be able to utilize Harris in order to reduce wear and tear on his other players — namely Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler — and keep them somewhat fresh for the postseason, if not at the expensive of some personal stats.

Harris is another player that can handle the ball and should lead to even more movement within the 76ers offense. He has shown over the years an ability to push the ball up the floor in transition and should relieve some of the pressure from Simmons in that area as well. In the event that he is the lone star on the floor, or should the ball movement stop, Harris able and willing to break out his do-it-himself kit; he may not dance a defender like Kyrie Irving, but he is more than capable of sizing up his man and either hitting a shot in their face or brute-forcing his way to the basket.

Harris is a more-than-capable shooter and, off the ball, should provide Simmons with another reliable perimeter outlet and open things up on the interior open things up inside for him and Embiid as well.

Defensively, Harris isn’t a wizard, but the effort and energy are there and should shine in the already competent 76ers defense. While it may not be ideal in all situations, Harris has the size to bang down low with some centers and the quickness to keep up with smaller players on the perimeter. Harris’ length — a near seven-foot wingspan — should also prove an asset, as he will allow the defense to switch on almost every possession. In the postseason, that could prove invaluable.

As good as this acquisition may look on paper, it isn’t without its cons or risks. Harris’ is another primary option on a team that already had three of them in Embiid, Simmons and Butler; could the presence of too many options bog things down a la the Boston Celtics earlier this season?

His contract situation, alongside the impending free agency of Butler, should give some pause as well.

The team has hedged its future on those two players and given up some good (and some great) assets to acquire them. Should Butler leave, Harris would provide the 76ers with the ultimate insurance policy but, should both players move on after the season it could set the team back years.

The 76ers have plenty of pre-existing issues to figure out as well, a losing record against their chief Eastern Conference competition — Milwaukee Bucks (0-1), Toronto Raptors (1-2) and Celtics (0-3) — most prominent among them.

But, with Harris in the fold, the 76ers seem to have all the pieces of the puzzle. If the players can put it all together, they could very well find themselves in the NBA Finals come June.

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Gordon Hayward Clearing Hurdles, Finding Joy In Comeback From Injury

Spencer Davies sits down with Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward to discuss the first half of his season, returning from a devastating injury and the team blocking out the noise.

Spencer Davies

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As his Boston Celtic teammates got some shots up to prepare for a morning practice in Cleveland, Gordon Hayward sat in a chair on the baseline watching.

Quicken Loans Arena held a particular place in his mind. Not because of a championship memory, nor for any individual accomplishment.

But because nearly five months after an emotional return and season debut, Hayward had come back to the scene where the course of his career shifted in an instant.

“It’s something that I was thinking about sitting in the hotel last night,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders before shootaround at The Q. “Like, last time I was here, my whole world changed. I’ll probably think about it, be a little anxious about it at the beginning when I first check in, but then when I get going it’ll be fine.”

If there was any trepidation, it was either short-lived or didn’t show. The 28-year-old looked as confident as ever, packing a powerful punch off the bench as a scorer and a distributor for a depleted Boston team. He finished with 18 points, six rebounds and five assists.

“I didn’t even think about that until this morning,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said of Hayward’s return to Cleveland. “I thought about it in the preseason and then for whatever reason, I probably should’ve thought about it.

“I just think he has played enough now where he’s past that initial hurdle, right? So it’s probably not fun to walk out on the court the first time and shoot around and those type of things but ultimately, I think he probably moved past that really quickly. I thought he was great tonight, both ends of the court. I thought his offensive playmaking passing the ball was as good as his scoring.”

Hayward has scored 20 points or more on just three different occasions this year. It’s a far cry from the All-Star numbers he used to put up nightly. He understands, however, that perseverance is necessary as he slowly, but surely gets re-acclimated to playing.

“Physically, I’ve felt pretty good. I think I’m definitely moving way better than I was at the beginning of the season,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting more and more confident with each month, each week. There’s definitely still games where I just don’t feel like myself, but I think I’m trending in the right direction.”

When asked about those areas that don’t feel right yet Hayward pinpointed attacking the basket, specifically going at big men in the paint, taking contact and finishing.

Knowing that he can go up, get hit and be able to come down fine is a mental hurdle Hayward admittedly still has to clear—and the only way to get past that is repetition.

“You just have to do it, and do it more than one time,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “It’s like an experience-type thing. You’ve got to just do it and feel confident doing it, and until that happens, then you’ll just keep thinking about it.”

Once Hayward is driving and dunking on a regular basis without thinking about what happens next, he says he’ll officially be back. Until then, an appreciation of being able to play the game he loves again is the true big picture—especially after an injury that could’ve taken it all away from him.

“That’s been a mental thing as well is trying to find some joy in just the fact that I’m back out on the court,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “Because some people don’t return from that and a blessing that we have the technology that we do these days that they were able to fix my ankle. So I guess just being patient with the whole thing, that’s been a challenge.”

CELTICS A WORK IN PROGRESS

Coming into the 2017-18 season, the excitement in Boston was palpable. Hayward signed a four-year maximum contract with the Celtics that summer. Shortly thereafter, Danny Ainge made a blockbuster deal to acquire Kyrie Irving, creating a dynamic duo to begin a new era of C’s basketball.

The Celtics started the campaign on the road against the defending Eastern Conference Champion Cavaliers in October. Since the storyline of the night was Irving facing off against the franchise he had won a championship with on opening night, Hayward’s debut took a bit of a back seat…until the unthinkable happened.

Less than halfway into the first quarter, Irving saw a cutting Hayward with an open path to the rim and threw up a lob looking for an alley-oop finish. Cleveland’s Jae Crowder and LeBron James came to double before Boston’s pair could connect, leaving Hayward afloat in an awkward position.

Hayward came down almost horizontally, with only his left leg there to brace himself for the fall. Tragically, he dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia simultaneously in one of the most gruesome moments in the history of sports.

As he was consoled by trainers and wheeled away on a stretcher with an air cast, the whole arena was dead silent. Players from both teams were praying in disbelief of what they’d just witnessed. Just like that, Hayward’s season was over, and even perhaps his career.

Following multiple successful surgeries and going through rehabilitation programs over the course of a year, Hayward was able to make a miraculous return to the court on October 16, 2018. He’s been on the floor for 26 minutes per night, playing in 53 of 58 total games.

Just as Hayward has tirelessly ground away to get back to form, so have the Celtics. With a healthy Irving and returning Hayward, along with the group that unexpectedly went seven games into the conference finals last year, they were supposed to be the top dog in the East.

It’s no secret that the Celtics boast an abundance of young talent. Jaylen Brown has shown plenty of growth after a shaky start to the season. Terry Rozier is on track to get paid in the offseason by a team in need of a starting point guard. Jayson Tatum is Boston’s second-best scorer (16.5 points per game) and rebounder (6.3 boards per game) at just 20 years old.

That goes without mentioning rookie center Robert Williams. Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker, while not quite as young, are two inexperienced NBA players who have overseas experience. The Celtics’ depth is a quality that is necessary for a deep run in the postseason.

“I think anytime they have an opportunity, they seem to make the most of it. That’s at every position,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders.

At the halfway mark headed into the All-Star break, Boston holds fifth place, locked in a battle with the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers for the three seed. The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors each have 43 wins with over five games separating them from the trio of teams behind them.

Despite back-to-back blown leads and losses to both Los Angeles franchises at the TD Garden, the Celtics have won 12 of their last 15 contests.

“I think when we all play with energy and when we’re connected defensively – and offensively, for that matter, but especially on the defensive end – we give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “Then, when we are able to move the ball and put together games where we have 30-plus assists, that’s when we’re really tough (to beat).”

TUSSLING WITH THE MEDIA

It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, though. Early in the season, there were many things said by multiple players on the record, including some pointed words from Irving in more than one instance. These comments can be twisted and turned easily.

Add in an example: the day he told reporters, “Ask me July 1,” regarding his free agency plans, it turned into a big mess of speculation. What many people didn’t hear was Irving’s thoughts regarding the media’s spin on what was actually going on.

“This is like college recruitment for me all over again. I don’t know. This is just weird,” Irving said to the scrum of reporters in New York. “It’s a new position to be in answering all these questions, seeing all this stuff that I’m trying to avoid, and it’s just a distraction. It’s crazy how stories and things and storyline can seep into a locker room. You guys are part of the destruction of locker rooms. That’s just what it is….”

Hayward had plenty of his own thoughts on the matter.

“I mean, I think certainly all outside noise has an opportunity to put a wedge between people and between teammates,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “I think especially in today’s age where there’s social media and information is right now, all-the-time, like everybody sees what everybody says. There’s guys that are paid to give their opinions on things and, if you read into all that stuff, can definitely put a wedge in between guys.

“More than anything, just talking to people,” Hayward said of the proper remedy. “If you have an issue with somebody, just tell ’em, talk to ’em. But I think for the most part if you block all that stuff out and really just focus on yourself as a group and what the coaching staff is saying and what your teammates are saying, it’s usually better.”

FATHERHOOD IS A BLESSING

We talked about the youth Boston has already, but Hayward isn’t in that same category anymore. While it’s not that he’s old, per se, he is a nine-year man in the NBA.

Hayward considers it “weird” that he’s the veteran now. Yet, at the same time, he doesn’t mind that time has flown by because of the gift of fatherhood. The injury he sustained was absolutely devastating.

But it put things in perspective for him, and no matter what happens from here on out with his career, Hayward will always be grateful for the most important thing in his life—family.

“No doubt. I think no matter what happens on the court, my girls don’t care,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “They just care that dad’s home and they want to play hot lava and play picnic and all that stuff. Like having three healthy kids and a wife at home, those things are good.”

If Hayward’s recent play is an indication of what we’re going to see from him moving forward, he might just get the best of both worlds.

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