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Gordon Hayward’s former teammate: ‘He was a damn-near superstar’

Alec Burks grins and tilts his head back as he starts reminiscing about Gordon Hayward’s time in Utah.

Burks and Hayward spent six years together with the Jazz, and their paths crossed again Friday night when the Celtics hosted the Cavaliers at TD Garden. Hayward scored 14 points on 6-of-9-shooting, two days after teammate Kyrie Irving encouraged him to seek out his shot more, and Burks certainly took notice.

Burks has seen Hayward consistently play like an All-Star, and he believes those days are quickly approaching with the Celtics.

“That’s my guy,” Burks said after Boston’s 128-95 win. “I’ve got nothing but love. It takes time to get back to the level he was at. He was a damn-near superstar. He’ll get there.”

Burks noted that Hayward has already made significant strides since the Celtics played the Jazz twice in November. In those games, Hayward finished a combined 6 for 16 and minus-19. On Friday, albeit in a lopsided win, Hayward added four assists and four rebounds and ended up plus-16.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens was pleased with Hayward’s aggressiveness against the Cavaliers and says he’s continuing to improve.

“It’s a work in progress,” Stevens said. “He’s going to be better at Game 40 than he is at 20, 60 than he is at 40. But he makes the right play a lot. He moves the ball, and I think that that benefits a lot of guys and that’ll open things up for him as time goes on.”

Hayward buried a fadeaway jumper in the first quarter, snatched a rebound and finished at the rim in the second, and canned an in-rhythm 3-pointer in the third. He sprinkled in several other highlights along the way, resembling the player Burks has grown accustomed to seeing.

“I was with Utah when we played him a couple weeks ago,” Burks said. “He was a totally different player then than he is now. Those type of injuries take time. He’ll get his whole rhythm back. I still think he’s going to get to another level, back to the All-Star he was.”

In his final season with the Jazz, Hayward averaged 21.9 points, attempting nearly 16 field goals per game and getting to the line about six times a night.

With the Celtics this year, those numbers are hovering around 10 points, nine field goal attempts, and 1.8 free-throw attempts per contest. He’s shooting roughly 40 percent, well below the 47-percent clip he posted that signature season with the Jazz, but Friday was another significant leap in the right direction.

Irving was quick to point out that Hayward’s success against the Cavaliers was a “happy moment” for the Celtics, especially because the looks all came within the flow of the offense. He wanted to give Hayward as much space as possible, but eventually he decided Wednesday was the best time to provide his two cents.

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“We’re born on the same day, so I don’t know if you believe in astrology or anything like that, but we have some personality things that we’re aligned with,” Irving said. “I think that he has that ticker inside of him. I remember Coach K (Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski) telling me that he has a little bit of an asshole in him, and he needs that. I think on the floor, that toughness when he starts turning red and starts getting into basketball and out in transition and starts dunking the basketball and start doing those things.”

Hayward acknowledged that at times this year he’s “passing a little bit too much,” adding that hearing feedback from Irving instilled some confidence in him. He still believes one of his main roles is to make plays for others, but he’s hopeful his shot continues to fall more in the games to come.

“Sometimes it’s hard to be aggressive looking for your shots if shots aren’t going in,” Hayward said. “I think the only way is you have to keep shooting and keep attacking. I talked (Thursday) about getting to the free-throw line more. I did it one time tonight. That’s a start.”

Hayward said he often looks back to tape from his Utah days, more out of necessity than anything else. Depending on which team the Celtics are playing, film from his time with the Jazz is frequently the only glimpse he has into various matchups or his personal habits.

Gordon says that continuing to watch film to foster an attacking mentality will benefit him, though there was one play Friday night that stuck in his mind as a disappointment. Early in the fourth quarter, with the game already decided, Hayward burst toward the rim and missed a layup, and he took umbrage with his own play.

“I think ‘Old G’ would have tried to dunk that,” Hayward said. “Some of it’s just the mentality. I’ve got to continue to watch the film, look at that, and relearn what I used to do and what I can do.”


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