Gordon Hayward rounding into All-Star form at new home in Charlotte

Gordon Hayward is running late on a Saturday morning. That’s what happens with four children (three daughters and an infant son) in the house. Even a game the night before – a victory against Minnesota – doesn’t relieve him of daddy duties the next morning before practice.

The whirlwind of free agency – and an eye-popping four-year, $120 million deal for Gordon who left the Boston Celtics for the Charlotte Hornets – and frenzy of moving his family from the northeast to the south is evaporating.

“We’re still sorting through boxes and getting adjusted week by week,” Hayward said. “The first couple of months I was here in a hotel by myself so it’s way better having the family here. The girls started school last week and we’re starting to get settled in.”

On the court, Hayward, 30, has found his place, putting together the type of season he hasn’t had since he played for Utah four seasons ago.

The Hornets were interested in signing Gordon Hayward (20) during the free agency period because of his ability to make plays off the dribble and in transition. (Photo: The Associated Press)

Regardless if he makes the All-Star team – reserves are set for unveiling on Tuesday – Hayward is having an All-Star season: 21.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game and shooting 48.5% from the field, including a career-high 43.2% on 3-pointers, and a career-high 86.4% on foul shots.

“The style of play that coach (James Borrego) wants to play, we’re really moving the ball, passing, cutting, it’s my style of basketball, it’s what I like to do,” the 6-7, 225-pound Hayward told USA TODAY Sports. “Everyone has been getting along on the court, and it seems like we’re all having fun out there. That makes for a fun season when people are sharing the ball.

“We’re not perfect and we have so much to get better at, but the younger guys are genuinely trying to learn and get better and they have a joy for the game, which I think is really cool.”

Charlotte is 14-15, in eighth place in the Eastern Conference and in playoff contention, which is exactly what the Hornets wanted from Hayward and what Hayward wanted to provide.

"I went into this thinking this is going to be a challenge,” Hayward said. "When I was looking at it, we have a bunch of young talented players and I can be in a position to try and help us get to the next level and help us continue to grow as a team and try to do what I can to help us win as many basketball games as we can. That’s been the case this season. We’ve had some really good wins, and we’ve had some tough losses as should be expected with a young basketball team. I’m having a blast.”

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Said Borrego: “He’s brought us a winning mentality, a professionalism in the locker room and on the court. He’s raised the bar for us in how we conduct ourselves in practice and in games. On the court, he’s provided us everything I expected and more.

“He’s been a big playmaker. We wanted a big wing who could make plays off the dribble, pick-and-rolls, in transition, and he’s done that. He’s a player you can play through in the fourth quarter as well. He’s someone I can throw the ball to and he can create offense for us, which is big for us.”

Hayward’s decision to sign with Charlotte was the surprise of free agency, and even more eyebrow-raising was the deal the Hornets offered – just one year removed from declining to offer Kemba Walker a max contract in free agency in 2019.

What were the Hornets thinking?

However, the situations were different. Walker also wanted an opportunity to advance in the playoffs, something he had never done in two postseason appearances with Charlotte, and Walker had logged considerable minutes and games played during his eight seasons with the franchise. Questions about Walker’s long-term durability are starting to play out in Boston as he struggles with knee issues in his two seasons with the Celtics.

Also, the Hornets realized the value of having a player who is box-office and TV draw. That's the price for paying for flair. And Charlotte is a fun team to watch with Hayward, rookie star LaMelo Ball, scorers Terry Rozier, Devonte Graham, P.J. Washington, Malik Monk and Miles Bridges, one of the NBA’s best dunkers.

Gordon, who has dealt with injuries including an offseason surgery to repair a damaged nerve in his foot, compares Charlotte to the rising teams he played for in Utah.

"It took some grinding," he said. "After we traded some players and the organization decided they were going to rebuild, we had some tough years early on with (Jazz coach) Quin (Snyder). But we stuck to it and my last year in Utah, we made it to the playoffs, beat the Clippers and had a great run. That was special, and you try to do the same thing here.”

Once Gordon signed, Borrego wanted to spent time with him. Brief Zoom calls during free agency weren't enough.

“You don’t get to know somebody in two Zoom calls,” Borrego said. “I got to know more about him and things he valued and things he liked and how he wanted to play. I wanted to take in more from Gordon and sit down with my staff and figure out how are we going to fit this guy into our system and how that would blend with the rest of our group.”

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Borrego and his staff came up with plan. "I wanted to change his shot profile a little bit to become more efficient,” he said. “He was obviously an elite mid-range player, but I thought we could get some more 3-point opportunities as well. The mid-range is the mid-range. He feels comfortable in that area, and I’m not going to take that away from him.

“But I wanted more rim opportunities for him in transition, which we’ve seen, and also mismatch opportunities at the rim or the high post. He’s a big, strong, physical wing that you can play through at the elbow or post area against mismatches. We’ve found a package for him that we like that gives him those opportunities.”

When the Celtics introduced Kyrie Irving (left) and Gordon Hayward before the 2017-18 season, they were expected to return the Celtics to their glory days. But injuries to both Hayward and Irving, as well as other factors, helped to derail those expectations. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

The results have been outstanding. With a higher usage rate for the Hornets, Hayward is shooting more 3s, more mid-range shots and more shots at the rim. His 16.4 field goal attempts per game is the highest of his career.

Among players who get at least three transition possessions per game, Hayward is second in transition points per possession at 1.36 (just behind Tobias Harris’ 1.43).

 “When I talked to him, ‘I said, ‘Who says these can’t be the best years of your career. I want you to come here and get better as a player. I want to challenge you in certain areas. We’re going to change your shot profile. Your usage will go up, and I expect you to be a highly efficient,’ " Borrego said. "There’s no reason why he couldn’t. He’s intelligent with great experience and I trusted him. I felt with our development program and our style of play, it fit. We said it to him. We shared that with his agent.”

The Hornets are also one of the best clutch teams in the league at 9-5 with a league-best clutch offensive rating and No. 2 clutch defensive rating. The NBA defines clutch time as the last five minutes of a game with the point differential five or less.

“When somebody of Gordon’s caliber is sitting next to you, you play with a different confidence,” Borrego said. “I’ve seen that from our guys. The confidence he has brought, including for me, is huge. I feel much more confident with him on the floor as well.”

Hayward clearly is more comfortable with Charlotte. For multiple reasons – injuries, other stars emerging, varying roles – it doesn’t always work out for a player. Hayward stresses he still loved his time in Boston.

“As we all were in Boston, disappointed and frustrated with the outcomes and a lot of that has to do with some unlucky and untimely injuries, especially on my part,” Hayward said. “But I couldn’t be happier in Charlotte and needed a fresh start – just a place where I could challenge myself and maximize who I am as a player.”

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