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Orlando Magic 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Orlando Magic’s rebuild has been slow and painful, but after two solid years in the draft lottery the Magic might have a bright future in front of them. Basketball Insiders takes a deep dive into the Orlando Magic in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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The Orlando Magic have been in a slump ever since the departure of Dwight Howard. Since his exodus, they’ve only eclipsed 30 wins in one season and haven’t finished in the top 10 of the Eastern Conference.

They’ve seen multiple lottery picks leave the team in the that span, either by trade or by free agency. One of those players, Victor Oladipo, has already turned into a legitimate superstar.

With three young lottery picks remaining on their roster in Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, and newcomer Mohamed Bamba, and a new head coach to boot, do the Magic have what it takes to make a splash in the LeBron-less East? Let’s find out.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

It feels like the last several summers have kind of bled together when it comes to the Orlando Magic, and 2018 was no real exception. The Magic made another coaching change, this time replacing Frank Vogel with Steve Clifford, who will become the franchise’s fifth head coach since the 2014-15 season. They locked up Aaron Gordon to a new four-year deal that seems mostly fair, plus swapped out one albatross center in Bismack Biyombo for another in Timofey Mozgov in a deal with Charlotte that also netted them Jerian Grant. And of course, they continued the franchise’s apparent obsession with drafting length, taking Texas center Mo Bamba sixth overall. It’ll be another developmental year in Orlando, one where the Magic will quickly want to get an idea of how Gordon and 2017 first-rounder Jonathan Isaac play together after Isaac barely cracked 500 minutes last season. They’ll also want to get a quick idea of how Bamba fits into the plans, plus whether or not that means they have to try and extract some value for the expiring contract of Nic Vucevic. Don’t expect a whole lot on the floor unless someone like Gordon takes a big leap, however.

4th Place – Southeast Division

-Ben Dowsett

In most cases, it would be very frustrating to watch a team like Orlando start rebuilding again since, you know, that’s what they’ve been doing since 2012. However, things just might be different this time. While the next couple of years are going to be drag for Orlando, Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon could build a glorious future in the Magic Kingdom. As for the present, not much should be expected of Orlando. The roster is promising but, even with Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic, it has no stars right now. Still, the future is bright! Just don’t screw this up like last time, okay guys?

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Matt John

There is no question about what kind of team the Magic are building right now. With the exception of four players, nobody on the roster is under 6-foot-6. They are long, athletic and most importantly, defensive-minded. Steve Clifford is going to have plenty of options to tinker with as far as rotations go. Scoring will be at a premium with this bunch, but opponents are going to need a ton of luck to put the ball in the basket against the likes of rookie Mohamed Bamba and second-year forward Jonathan Isaac. It probably won’t field the best results in their first season, but pay close attention to this experiment in Orlando.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The Orlando Magic haven’t been crazy in their moves, but they have taken chances, and on the surface those chances look pretty promising. The issue for the Magic is they are trapped between two teams – the team the current front office inherited, and the young team they have built and drafted. If Steve Clifford is the coach the Magic believe him to be, maybe all of this comes together into something unexpectedly special, but if Clifford is the coach he was in Charlotte, the Magic could be doomed before they get out of the gate. Its not fair to lay it all on the feet of a new head coach, but if the Magic have had a bad culture for a while, maybe Clifford is the guy that changes it enough to help the young guys flourish. If he’s not, then all of this is simply smoke and mirrors for another run through the draft lottery.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

The Orlando Magic have a decent group of veteran talent but the team’s priority should be on developing and building around its young talent. Aaron Gordon is locked up on a four-year deal and continues to round out into a very capable player. My main focus this season, however, is the pairing of Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. Both players are incredibly long, talented and mobile. I am not sure how well these two players will fit together on the floor against NBA teams but I am excited to see what head coach Steve Clifford is able to do with them. If Isaac and Bamba come even close to their respective ceilings, the Magic could have a dynamic frontcourt duo unlike any other in the league. But it’s also possible that they aren’t a great fit or they don’t allow Gordon to play enough minutes at power forward, which is where he is arguably most effective.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Aaron Gordon

Entering his fifth year in the league, Aaron Gordon has seen a substantial improvement to his offensive game. He is coming off a season in which he averaged career highs across the board, posting 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, and 0.8 blocks.

Something that really sticks out is Gordon’s work to become a modern-day stretch four. As a rookie, he shot a measly 27.1 percent from the three-point line. He’s seen a steady improvement in his ability to shoot from beyond the arc throughout his time in the league and posted a respectable 33.6 percent this last season. He started out the season red hot, shooting a blistering 42.5 percent from the three through December. He obviously cooled off the latter half of the season, thanks in part to a lackluster 20.5 three-point percentage in January.

If he can find that fire again this season, and stay healthy (a large part of his poor January shooting could be the fact that he missed seven games in December), his ability to shoot the three will give the Magic some much-needed offensive firepower. A key thing to note, in wins last season, Gordon shot 42.1 percent from the three-point line. In losses, that number was down to 30.2 percent.

Top Defensive Player: Jonathan Isaac

While the Magic added someone to their roster this offseason whose wingspan makes Rudy Gobert’s look average, we wanted to go with someone who has already had a season to prove their defensive value. The second-year product out of Florida State University, Jonathan Isaac posted a considerably lower defensive rating than anyone else on the Magic’s roster at 101.1.

Isaac still has a thin frame, which can allow stronger opponents to muscle him down low, but he more than makes up for it with his length and athleticism. It’s no surprise that he led the Magic in block percentage at 44.1, but he also led the team in steal percentage at 35.9.

Jonathan is still incredibly raw on offense. But his high defensive IQ, matched with his lanky frame, will allow him to dominate on D for many years to come. He is long enough to protect the rim, but quick enough to guard the wing, making him highly valuable in today’s game of “position-less” basketball. Give him a few more years to put on muscle and assimilate in the league, and he’ll become a force to be reckoned with.

Top Playmaker: D.J. Augustin

If there is one thing that Magic are definitely lacking right now, it is a solid playmaker. Before the trade deadline, Elfrid Payton was putting together a solid season offensively, averaging a career-high 6.4 assists per game. Once he was dealt to the Suns, the starting one position essentially fell into Augustin’s lap.

A positive thing to note regarding Augustin’s tenure post-All-Star break was his increase in assist percentage. Before the break as a backup, his assist percentage was 23.7. After taking over as lead ball handler, it shot up to 27.1 percent. Thanks in part to D.J.’s many years in the league, he also boasted a positive assist to turnover ratio of 2.36 during the post-All-Star stretch. It doesn’t hurt that he shot 41.9 percent from beyond the arc, either.

He clearly shouldn’t be their answer as a long-term playmaker. Augustin has been in the league long enough to know what you’re going to get out of him, but going into this season he is the best playmaker on the floor. It will be interesting to see if the Magic try to add a younger point guard at the deadline to help with their rebuild, or if they plan to go with Augustin for the year and begin the search next summer.

Top Clutch Player: Evan Fournier

Evan Fournier has been a solid player during his tenure with the Magic. He is an efficient scorer, and barring the emergence of Aaron Gordon, could have been considered the best offensive player on this roster. One thing that sticks out with Fournier, however, is how much the Magic go through him in the clutch. He has a 31.8 usage percentage in the clutch, almost double any other player on roster. Only 11 players who played at least as many clutch minutes and exceeded Fournier in usage percentage made a higher percentage of their team’s field goals.

He also boasts the most points per game in the clutch, the highest percentage of fields goals attempted and made, and the most minutes played. One thing that Fournier lacks in this category is efficiency. While he does score the most points in the clutch, by a considerable amount, he does so with poor field goal percentage at 38.9. Chalk this up to teams putting their best wing defender on him in the closing minutes of all close games. Teams realize how much he is relied upon in the clutch and definitely game plan around that.

The Unheralded Player: Nikola Vucevic

This seems to be a popular place for Vucevic to land, as we had him as the unheralded player last year, too. He is a talented big that somehow gets hidden on a lackluster roster. He averaged a quiet 16.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.1 blocks last year, all while averaging a career high percentage at the free throw line of 81.9 percent.

One thing that doesn’t get mentioned nearly often enough is that he has the highest usage percentage out of all the starters. This can be tied to his highly efficient post-up play and ability to finish around the rim. He’s been trying to stretch his game to the three-point line, and while his mark of 31.4 percent isn’t entirely flashy, it puts him at seventeenth in the league out of centers who attempt more than three a game.

A few more interesting numbers to prove his value are the fact that his plus-minus of -0.6 is considerably better than any other starter on the roster. He also boasts 29 double-doubles, 12 more than Aaron Gordon, and light years more than any other player on the roster.

Best New Addition: Mohamed Bamba

This pick should come as no surprise. Bamba has brought a new dimension to this league. With the sixth overall pick, the Magic introduced the largest wingspan in the NBA at 7-foot-10. ‘Mo’ Bamba has elite length, which will allow him to make an immediate impact on defense. He finished second in the NCAA in blocks per game, at a staggering 3.7. He was in the top 20 for defensive rebounds at 7.33. His stature is no joke, and the league will take notice upon the start of the season.

A dimension that he will surely try to improve is his ability to shoot. Many videos have appeared showing Bamba shooting with solid, consistent technique. This will not directly translate in game situations off the bat, as he did shoot only 27.5 percent from three in college, but the fact that he finds importance to develop this part of his game early can only be a huge benefit to the Magic.

– Jordan Hicks

Who We Like:

1. Jonathon Simmons:

After coming off arguably his best year, albeit in a new system and getting used to a larger role, Simmons is poised to make an even larger impact in his second year of the Magic. He is locked up for at least one more year with next season being non-guaranteed. This fact alone will incentivize him to string together a strong season so he can potentially make a large splash in next summer’s free agency.

He developed superbly with the Spurs during his first two years of the league, then saw career highs across the board in his first year with the Magic. Not only did he improve basic stats like scoring, rebounding, and assists, but he was also able to improve his efficiency.

He’s spent the summer recovering from a wrist injury, so it will be interesting to see how healthy he is come the start of the season. With him slated as the starting shooting guard, the Magic will definitely need him to continue his improvements if they want to add more wins.

2. Steve Clifford:

By hiring Clifford as new head coach, the Orlando Magic hope that he’ll be able to develop this young roster into a winning team. Steve has carved out a comfortable spot in the league as a defensive savant, developing his skills under both Van Gundy brothers before taking over as the coach of the then-Charlotte Bobcats in 2013.

While he wasn’t able to make any deep runs in the playoffs, he did get there two out of five seasons. He never really had a championship caliber roster, but he was definitely able to coach his teams to be solid defensively.

The Magic were very strategic in hiring Clifford. As you look at their roster, three names stick out right away as defensive building blocks: Mohamed Bamba, Aaron Gordon, and Jonathan Isaac. Throw in Jonathon Simmons, and you’ve got yourself quite the group. These players, as mentioned previously, boast length, athleticism, and technique. Clifford should be able to utilize these players’ unique skillsets right away to help the Magic get off to a strong start.

3. D.J. Augustin:

If there is one thing we’ve learned while watching the NBA the past few years, it is that teams can live or die by the three. D.J. Augustin was one of the best three point shooters in the league last year at 41.9 percent. The Magic weren’t flawed in starting Elfrid Payton over Augustin, as he is much younger and definitely had room to develop, but allowing Augustin more minutes per page gives the team a much better opportunity at stretching the floor on offense. D.J. is an elite three-point shooter and will keep defenses on their heels whenever he has the ball.

4. The New Frontcourt

We cannot wait to see the three-man monster lineup on defense of Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, and Mohamed Bamba. Those three players will terrorize opposing teams at the rim. Two of the three can absolutely hold their own when switching onto smaller players, as well.

As the season goes on and this group gets more and more minutes together, they are going to help the Orlando Magic morph into a defensive-minded team that this league hasn’t seen. Clifford will help put these players in the right positions. Don’t be surprised if the Magic finish as a top-five team defensively.

– Jordan Hicks

Strengths

While this team has struggled immensely since the departure of Dwight Howard, this young, raw core that they’ve pieced together over the last few years has to totally look like a bright spot. They’ve been able to draft some really intriguing pieces that all harbor elite length, athleticism, and playmaking ability.

It will be interesting to see if the new head coach can help instill a winning culture to a team that is used to losing games. Looking at the roster as a whole, Jonathon Simmons is one of the few players that has recently been a part of a winning culture. Getting a new coach in there that is used to winning a lot more games than most of the players should be viewed as a positive.

– Jordan Hicks

Weaknesses

A clear weakness is their lack of a true distributor. By waiving Shelvin Mack, the Magic no longer have anyone on their roster that can successfully distribute the ball. D.J. Augustin has always been a solid backup point guard, but he’s never been more than just that. By trading Payton and waiving Mack, they’ve handicapped themselves to a serious lack of depth at the point guard position.

Jerian Grant is coming off his best season yet with the Chicago Bulls, so it will be interesting to see what he brings to the table with Orlando. He will likely start the season as backup point guard, but thanks in part to his youth, Orlando may throw him into the starting spot if he proves he is worth the development.

While they have plenty of pieces to work with defensively, they are coming off a season in which they finished twentieth in the league in defensive rating. This has certainly been a weak point the last couple of seasons, so their recent draft acquisitions and new coaching hire have been made for a reason.

– Jordan Hicks

The Burning Question:

Can Steve Clifford Change the Losing Culture of this Young Team?

History matters with a question like this. In looking at Clifford’s track record as an NBA head coach, there is reason to believe that he can. During his first season with the Charlotte Bobcats, he led them to a 43-39 record as well as the playoffs. Their two previous years the Bobcats had a combined win total of only 28.

This shows that Clifford has the ability to make an immediate impact by employing his defense-first mentality. One could also argue that this young Magic roster has a lot more upside than the roster he took over in Charlotte. It will be interesting to see as the season progresses, but one thing is for certain: This Magic team will be exciting.

– Jordan Hicks

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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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