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SALT LAKE CITY — Maybe the kid from Indiana wasn't meant for the big city lights.
Nearly four years ago, Gordon Hayward left Utah for Boston and all the perceived advantages that came with joining the Celtics. The move appeared to be his path to bigger stardom, to more All-Star games and championships. It was supposed to be the defining chapter of his legacy.
We all know what happened next: In his first game with his new team, he shattered his left leg.
As Hayward healed, so too did the Jazz. The wounds of that July 4 holiday in 2017 have long been closed. So when Hayward's new small-market franchise met his old one Friday night, there wasn't any hostility or bitterness. In fact, it was just the opposite.
"I'm happy that he's fallen into a mindset and an opportunity the way he has because he's worked hard to get where he is," Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.
The Jazz have moved on — and then some — from the Hayward era. They left Charlotte with a 138-121 win and the NBA's best record at 18-5. They have a new face of the franchise, a couple All-Stars and growing championship hopes. In short, things are good in Utah. But things are going pretty well for Hayward in Charlotte, too.
After three season in Boston, clouded by the devastating injury, Hayward's career has been reborn in Charlotte. He's averaging a career-high 23 points along with 5.5 rebounds and nearly four assists. With the Hornets in playoff contention, Hayward is even getting some All-Star buzz for the first time since he was in Salt Lake City.
"I think the way that he's playing and the system and the way that they're using him, clearly he doesn't look like he's been here a short time," Snyder said. "He looks like he's very comfortable."
It's a comfort level that hasn't really been seen since he was playing for the Jazz. Boston signed Hayward to be the face of the franchise, and to be the best player on a championship-contending team. By the time Hayward was even able to contribute, following months and months of rehab, the Celtics had regrouped around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The role Hayward had signed up for was no longer available.
Due to the long recovery and the lesser role he took with the Celtics in his final year, there was significant doubt whether Hayward could return to the All-Star level player he was with the Jazz. So count Hornets head coach James Borrego as one who is pleasantly surprised about what Hayward has done this season.
"The biggest thing is he's been a gem as a playmaker," Borrego said. "We needed someone with size that could playmake and his playmaking is the best thing that he does. I think you saw that back to Utah. I think he's gotten better probably even more so than his Utah days as far as a playmaker, but he loves to share the ball, move the ball, he loves passing the ball."
Hayward had 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists against the Jazz on Friday — a stat line reminiscent of some of his better games in Utah. That's something that likely made Snyder feel a little bit of joy watching.
"It's no secret how I feel about Gordon, and the type of player that he is. I think he's one of the top players in the league and he's showing that in this situation right here," Snyder said. "You can't underestimate what it's like to go through an injury like the one that he did and then to come back and really try to find your role within the team."
As for his old one, Hayward thinks they are pretty good, too.
"They're a phenomenal team — they move the ball well, get open shots, and they knock them down," Hayward said.