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Sacramento Kings 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Sacramento Kings have been collecting promising young talent, but will it yield a run towards the playoffs or another trip to the lottery? Basketball Insiders takes a deep dive into the Sacramento Kings in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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Throughout the past decade, no team in the NBA has summed up basketball purgatory quite like the Sacramento Kings. They currently own the league’s longest playoff drought at 12 years. For all that time they’ve been in the lottery, they seemingly have very little to show for it. There was a time when the old Arco Arena was among the most feared arenas in the league for opponents. Now the Kings home arena is more of a place where visiting teams can pencil in an easy victory.

All is not lost, however. It does appear that there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. The Kings enjoyed a great free agency period last summer when they managed to sign three of the most respected veterans in the league in George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. Two of the three have since moved on, but the fact remains that those guys were willing to come to Sacramento. Now, with a few recent draft moves, it appears that the Kings are finally headed in the right direction.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Kings can always be counted on to zag where most other front offices would zig, and they did exactly that once again to begin the 2018 offseason. In drafting Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic, Sacramento passed on a guy many considered the single can’t-miss prospect of the draft – and no one is going to forget about it anytime soon if Doncic becomes a star while Bagley, as some worry he will, becomes mostly an empty stats guy. Elsewhere, it was another roller coaster summer for the Kings. They made a huge restricted free agent offer to Chicago’s Zach LaVine, a smart move given the cap situation around the league, but the Bulls matched. After a curious trade that sent Garrett Temple out for a reunion with Ben McLemore, the Kings are left with a guard and wing group that’s pretty thin after young core pieces De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, plus swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic. They’ve still got several intriguing frontcourt pieces even beyond Bagley, including Skal Labissiere, Harry Giles and Willie Cauley-Stein, but will there even be enough court time for all these guys to develop? They’ll have to fight for minutes with guys like Zach Randolph, Kosta Koufos and newly-signed Nemanja Bjelica – none of whom are good enough to anchor a playoff-caliber frontcourt at this point. It could be another head-scratcher of a season in Sacramento without some moves made, even if Fox or Hield takes some real steps forward.

5th Place – Pacific Division

-Ben Dowsett

The Sacramento Kings are a tough organization to figure out. Each season the team makes head-scratching moves that come off as just random and without much purpose. This offseason, the Kings Signed extended a four-year, $78 million offer sheet to restricted free agent Zach LaVine, which the Chicago Bulls matched. I just don’t see LaVine as the missing piece that Sacramento desperately needed, especially with other young guards already on the roster. Despite the constant head-scratching moves, the Kings still have some interesting prospects on the roster, including De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harry Giles, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Marvin Bagley III. While the team has some nice young talent, it is nowhere near playoff contention in the Western Conference and still seems to operate without a long-term vision in mind.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

There isn’t much else to say about the Kings that hasn’t already been pointed out. Their roster all in all is a mess. They have too many bigs and guards, but not enough wings. They have vets with no place on the roster and no one knows exactly what they’re doing. In other words, they’re still the Kings. They do have a solid youth movement on their hands led by the likes of De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Harry Giles. For the next couple of years, they’ll have to decide who they want to stay long-term as they rebuild. For now, expect Sacramento to be among the bottom dwellers.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Matt John

It’s going to be a joy to watch head coach Dave Joerger maintain the development of his younger players. He could have a three-headed monster in the making if things go the way they’re supposed to. De’Aaron Fox showed flashes last season in the clutch. Now, he’ll get not one, but two new, talented rookie teammates in Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles, who missed all of last season. Buddy Hield is flying under the radar as the sharpshooter most of us predicted he’d be in the pros as well. As much as they’ll likely be fun to watch grow together, there will be ups and downs.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

Zach Randolph and Iman Shumpert — those are the Kings’ two highest-paid players. Think about that for a second. The Kings have almost no proven veterans; they are team truly built around their youth, and while that youth could be impressive in a few years, this year is going to be tough, especially in the West. The Kings desperately need one (maybe two) of their promising young guys to really blossom for this team to go anywhere significant. Rebuilding is a long and brutal process. The Kings are midway through it with a lot to show for their trips through the lottery, but expecting them to be anything more than a fun young team might be misplaced.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Buddy Hield

As of right now, the Kings’ roster is still taking shape. It’s quite possible that once the season begins, this list may end up being drastically different from what’s being predicted. But with no games having been played yet, based on everything we know up to this point, Buddy Hield is currently the best offensive player on the team.

When he was traded to the Kings during the 2016-17 season, he immediately put up 15.1 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field, and 42.8 percent from the three-point line. His numbers dropped this past season to 13.5 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting, but he did knock down a career-high 43.1 percent from three. Although he came into the league as a four-year college player, he’s just now entering his third NBA season. He’s a great shooter who can knock down shots from anywhere on the court. One area he stands to improve upon is his ability to get to the rim and draw contact. He only averages about one free throw attempt per game. If he can show that part of his game this season, he could be in line for a breakout offensive year.

Top Defensive Player: Willie Cauley-Stein

Even after three years in the league, Willie Cauley-Stein is still a work in progress. He has shown, however, the possibility of him becoming one of the better interior defenders in the NBA. He’s already become the Kings’ best interior defender, as he showed this past season his shot blocking ability. He also displayed glimpses of being a solid one-on-one defensive player. Defensive rebounding was also a strength of his.

What Cauley-Stein needs to improve upon is becoming a much more consistent defensive player. He’s got all the tools and skills to really become one of the league’s best defensive anchors in the paint. In today’s NBA, big men are earning spots by being able to switch defensively and guard multiple positions. Cauley-Stein has the physical tools to do just that. But even as it stands, he is one of the Kings best defenders.

Top Playmaker: De’Aaron Fox

As a rookie, De’Aaron Fox immediately emerged as Sacramento’s top playmaker. He may not have had the rookie season that some of the peers did, but he showed enough to warrant the Kings taking him with a top-5 pick. A point guard is an extension of the coach on the floor. A point guard quarterbacks the team and ensures the offense is run to perfection.

Fox was thrust into that role as a rookie and he did very well. He’s already a great player in transition and he displayed a willingness to keep his head up and watch for his teammates in position for easy buckets. Point guard is a tough transition to make from college to the NBA game, but Fox has shown enough glimpses to assure Sacramento that he’s their floor general of the future.

Top Clutch Player: De’Aaron Fox

One area that Fox seemingly excelled in during his rookie season was his clutch performances. There are many players who shy away from big moments late in games, but Fox has proved beyond doubt that he is not one of those players.

Although he was a rookie on a team that had a couple veteran options, he never hid from clutch situations. It was the exact opposite in fact. He relished those moments and his aggressiveness on the court and willingness to take big shots stood out. He actually won a few games for the Kings with his late game heroics, including some game winning shots. That lack of fear in big moments is something that can’t be taught. It’s either in you or it’s not, and Fox proved that he definitely has it.

The Unheralded Player: Harry Giles

Harry Giles had almost become a forgotten name to the general public. There was a time when he was projected to be one of the top picks in the NBA draft. He was considered the top player in his high school class and a highly sought after recruit. Unfortunately, he was hit with major injuries that ended up affecting his draft stock. The Kings drafted him with the knowledge that he probably wasn’t going to suit up for his rookie season.

The world got their first glimpse of Giles in the NBA when he suited up a couple games for the Kings during summer league. He predictably looked rusty, but he did provide flashes of the player that was once talked about as a potential No.1 overall pick. He displayed potential to become a versatile scorer as well as an elite defender. He can switch between forward spots and he could be able to guard multiple positions. You can laugh all you want, but a healthy Giles will certainly be in the running for Rookie of the Year.

Best New Addition: Marvin Bagley III

Marvin Bagley had plenty of hype entering his senior year of high school. He was widely regarded as the best player in the country. He announced his college decision live on ESPN and his arrival in Durham seemingly guaranteed Duke would make a deep postseason run. Instead, the Blue Devils had a disappointing ending to their season and some of Bagley’s flaws were magnified, causing some to ridiculously assert that he shouldn’t be taken with one of the top picks.

Thankfully for Sacramento, they did not fall for that. Bagley may have struggled somewhat in summer league, but like his teammate Giles, he showed enough in the limited games he played to justify the Kings taking him with the second overall pick. Bagley has an incredibly versatile skill set. He is a big man who can put the ball on the floor and attack the rim as well as shoot from the perimeter. He’s got some semblance of a back to the basket game, but that is one part of this offensive package that he’ll have to improve upon. College isn’t always the best indicator of NBA success, and Bagley’s game is more suited to the pro level. Do not be surprised if the Kings end up with two potential Rookie of the Year candidates.

-David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Justin Jackson

When the Kings selected Fox, Giles, and Justin Jackson all in the 2017 NBA Draft, it looked like one of their best drafts in a very long time. Fox and Giles were definite lottery talent players, but Jackson has the potential to be a very good NBA player in his own right. He had a decent rookie season that saw him play in 68 games including 41 starts. He exploded during summer league, where he showed a versatile scoring package. He will need to improve his three-point shot, and if he can do that, he’ll be the prototypical 3&D player.

2. Frank Mason III

The Kings garnered a lot of praise for their draft haul of Fox, Giles and Jackson. But the one guy who may have looked more NBA ready this past season was second-round pick Frank Mason III. Mason emerged as one of the Kings top contributors off the bench. As a rookie, he helped run the second unit with the poise of a veteran. The Kings did sign Yogi Ferrell in the offseason, but Mason did well enough to prove that he should get first crack in the rotation as the backup point guard.

3. Bogdan Bogdanovic

Bogdan Bogdanvoic didn’t come over to the NBA until a year after he was drafted, but he was immediately the Kings’ best rookie last season. He was NBA ready right from the start and was named MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend. He can shoot, he can pass, and he’s got good size for a guard. He should be a starter level player in the NBA for at least a few more years.

4. Wenyen Gabriel

Wenyen Gabriel was signed to a two-way contract with the Kings, so it’s likely that he’ll spend most of the season with the Stockton Kings, Sacramento’s G-League affiliate. He had two so-so years at Kentucky before going undrafted and ending up on the Kings summer league team. He showed some glimpses in Las Vegas and he’s only 21 years old. He’s already got a nice shooting touch from outside and he’s in the mold of an interior shot blocker. He should get some nice time to develop in the G-League and could be a player to look out for in the future.

-David Yapkowitz

STRENGTHS

Their young core. It appears as if the Kings’ trips to the lottery have begun to yield results. Perhaps all of their futility the past decade will finally pay off. Fox, Giles, Jackson and Mason was a great draft haul. Fox, Jackson and Mason have already displayed NBA readiness while Giles is a potential Rookie of the Year candidate. They still have Skal Labissiere, who exploded after the DeMarcus Cousins trade. He came back down to Earth last season but he’s just scratched the surface of what he could potentially develop into. And then there’s Bagley. Bagley’s got all the tools to be a superstar in the NBA. The Kings are certainly hoping that’s what he becomes.

-David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESS

A losing culture. Constant losing can be devastating in the NBA, especially with young players. That’s the risk you take when you end up tanking or just flat out being bad. Just like how a culture of winning can take place, the opposite is true as well. Losing becomes the norm and that’s what fans and players alike come to know and expect. The Kings have a long way to go to get back to respectability. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s got to start somewhere. The Kings really need to show the world this season that they no longer are a pushover. They don’t need to win so much as they need to be competitive. A bunch of losses by one point is better than a bunch of blowouts.

-David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Kings make the playoffs?

As the current owners of the longest streak of missing the playoffs, the fans up in Sacramento have got to be anxious for something good. The bad news is the Kings are nowhere near ready to compete for a postseason berth, not in the Western Conference. The good news is that they may finally have the foundation to eventually reach that goal. It’s baby steps, and to borrow a phrase from the Philadelphia 76ers, they need to “trust the process.”

-David Yapkowitz

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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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