A little over a year ago, Gordon Hayward got injured. Badly. He returned this year. He has struggled. The Boston Celtics have struggled. People are wondering why.
Hayward was recently shifted to the bench, where he put up an 0-fer on New Year’s Eve. He followed that up with a 35-point explosion two days later. What’s going on here?
Cleaning The Glass recently had an interesting discussion encompassing Hayward’s struggles and usage. The discussion inevitably turned to Hayward’s devastating injury, a fractured left tibia and ankle dislocation that involved on-court reduction and surgery to repair both the fracture and ligaments. In case you need a reminder on how gruesome the injury was, see below:
In the aforementioned discussion, CTG founder Ben Falk states the following:
“…a big drop in finishing is one of the easier ways we can see, statistically, the result of injuries. HIs rate of drawing shooting fouls is also on pace to be a career-low…With reduced explosiveness around the rim, he isn’t able to draw contact or finish at the same rates….he’s definitely less explosive on film…of his six dunks this year, only one has been off that previously injured left foot…In Utah, he’d dunk off either foot or both feet.”
Since then, Hayward has boosted that total all the way up to…eleven. Three of those dunks came in one game. What is interesting is that two of those three dunks involved lifting off both feet (it’s hard to tell which foot he’s lifting off of in the third one). You can almost envision Hayward aging a thousand years as he leaps to the hoop:
While he displayed some improved acceleration in open space, he looks positively creaky compared to when he finished in traffic in Utah a couple years ago. I can’t add the video below due to NBA copyright, so check the link.
Look what he did to the Greek Freak in early 2017 (incidentally, while lifting off his left foot). Can you imagine him doing this now?
To his credit, Hayward is aware of this. In chronicling his comeback attempt, he wrote:
“From what I am told, the last thing to come is that explosion off my left foot…being able to push off that left when I’m going right, when I’m going to the rim off of one foot, being able to just confidently jump off of it and finish at the rim, whether that’s a dunk, or a layup, or whatever–that is the last piece.”
And perhaps that awareness has led to some tentativeness. After averaging a dunk per game his last season in Utah, he’s down to about a third of a dunk per game, which would be the lowest since his rookie season when he was playing nearly ten fewer minutes a game than he is now. The percent of his shot attempts coming at the rim is by far the lowest of his career, as well. To illustrate, according to CTG, he is in the 38th percentile among players at his position in this category, whereas his previous career-low was the 54th percentile.
Volume is one thing, but efficiency is another. Falk wrote an excellent article about how finishing numbers can consistently inform us about a player’s a health. Falk runs through the numbers in his Hayward discussion. Using the same CTG metrics, Hayward is currently in the 34th percentile in field-goal percentage at the rim, again a career-low, and his rate of drawing shooting fouls is in the 63rd percentile, joining his rookie year in the cellar and a far cry from the consistent 80th percentile-plus numbers he posted from 2012-2017.
So we have established so far that: a) Hayward is dunking less, b) is less explosive around the rim and is favoring his left leg, which we have visual evidence for, and c) less efficient when he does get to the rim. Well, he’s coming off a devastating injury, so of course he’s going to initially have trouble recovering, so case closed, right?
Not quite. Something else struck me in the CTG discussion about Hayward. Falk and Jordan Brenner have the following exchange:
“Jordan: (D)o you have any sense of whether this is the type of thing that can get better over time? Or is Gordon Hayward suddenly a different player now and forever more?
Ben: Yeah, so that would be a question for a doctor, and even then, it probably depends on the specifics of the case…I wouldn’t say I’m surprised by his reduced effectiveness to start the season…if I were the Celtics I’d only start to really believe something was irreparably wrong if we’re sitting here at this time next year having the same discussion.”
The question, then, is not why Hayward isn’t as effective. Rather, it’s when can we expect him to regain his effectiveness (if ever). When can we expect him to comfortably explode off that left foot and finish? When will he reclaim that “last piece”, as Hayward himself puts it?
While I am a doctor, I can’t tell you off-hand whether Hayward will get better over time. The injury will probably get better in some aspects. For instance, Hayward may feel better, his symptoms may improve, he may become stronger. But will that necessarily translate into better numbers? And, if so, at what point can we expect that to happen?
To help answer this, I took a look at three other players who sustained a similar injury. Even though it’s difficult, if impossible, to find a direct one-to-one comp of Hayward’s injury, there are a few players that come to mind that sustained a devastating injury in a similar area of the body. While acknowledging that every injury is case-by-case and that specifics of a player’s injury history, body composition, mental make-up, rehabilitatoin, and numerous other factors can influence outcomes, I tried to determine whether we could establish precisely when the following players achieved a new level of “normal”.
I believe there’s one player in particular that we could learn the most from, but I’ll start with a player who sustained his injury under similar circumstances as Hayward.
Injury: right broken tibia
Like Hayward, Randle suffered his injury in his first game with a new team. Unlike Hayward, he was a rookie.
While Randle’s injury doesn’t appear to involve any ligaments, it does seem to be in the distal part of the leg, as the clip below shows:
College stats are noisy due to available information and a player’s role in the system. So, given that we have no NBA data on Randle before he got injured (as he was a rookie), we can look at how his career has evolved since, starting with 2015-16, his first season post-injury.
Finishing: Julius Randle
|Frequency (% of shot attempts that came at Rim)||Accuracy (Field Goal% at Rim)||Dunk% (% of all Field Goals that are dunks)||% of All Shot Attempts that Drew Fouls|
Let’s ignore 2018-19 for now. I’ll get to that in a bit.
Keep in mind that first season was effectively his rookie year. Still, Randle’s finishing was dreadful. His rim accuracy was in the 16th percentile of all players at his position, per Cleaning The Glass.
What’s promising, though, is that Randle has shown steady improvement throughout his career, finishing in the 67th percentile in rim accuracy last year and is currently in the 61st this year. His career FG% on shots within three feet of the rim is 66.3%. He settles in at this mark–this “new normal”–by the third season.
It’s also promising that his dunking rate and ability to draw fouls (an outstanding 93rd percentile in 2017-18) got better.
He was able to explode off that right leg as soon as his first year back:
You can see more dunks off his right leg that first year back here (just make sure to adjust your sound settings once the music starts blaring. And, no, your computer monitor has not died, that purple haze in the beginning is part of the video). Granted, his injury wasn’t as involved as Hayward’s, but it’s good to see that he was able to trust that right foot almost immediately.
And yet there’s a caveat to these numbers. Randle saw a year-to-year increase in shooting at the rim off the pass. In 2015-16, 42% of his rim makes were assisted. That rose to 58% that third year with the Lakers. Perhaps he was getting better looks as his role in the offense grew. Maybe his positioning got better as he got more experience, more plays were ran for him and he didn’t have to force things anymore. But it’s similar to Elton Brand’s trajectory after his Achilles injury, where Brand only significantly improved his finishing once he was playing mostly off the pass.
Now, about the 2018-19 season. Randle signed with the Pelicans this off-season. With that, it appears he has had a slight role change. Long considered a traditional big, he has stretched out his game some. Over ten percent of his shot attempts this year are threes (previous high was seven percent), he has taken more threes than any season of his career (and this year isn’t half-over yet), and he is making a decently credible amount of them for a guy that supposedly didn’t have it in his skill set (32%). So while he has maintained his effectiveness at the rim, it has come in light of a role and shot selection change, which may have opened up previously closed-off opportunities.
Injury: Left ankle fracture
Canaan is interesting because not only did he suffer his injury in the same season as Hayward, but the mechanism of injury was eerily similar:
While details of the actual surgery, including specific bone and ligament involvement, aren’t available, Canaan (whose ankle was also reduced on-court) presents a convenient test case alongside Hayward. Like Hayward, this is Canaan’s first season since the injury, so maybe we can see if he’s likewise struggling. While he’s a different type of player, maybe we can glean something from the numbers. Of note, Canaan was waived by Phoenix on 11/28/18, so we only have a 19-game sample size for him this year.
Finishing: Isaiah Canaan
|Frequency (%)||Accuracy (%)||% of All Shot Attempts that Drew Fouls|
|4 seasons before Injury||31||50||10.8|
|3 seasons before Injury||20||41||5.5|
|2 seasons before Injury||16||45||8.3|
|1 season before Injury||21||59||8.1|
|Season of Injury (before injury occurred)||37||38||12.5|
|1 season after Injury||29||42||5.9|
I omitted dunks because Canaan has only two in his career (both last season).
There’s not a lot to draw from this. Utilized mainly as a three-point marksman, he’s been inconsistent getting to the rim in his career. While he increased his frequency to 37% last season before the injury, he fell to pre-injury levels this season. His accuracy in finishing has generally been bad, apart from an outlier season in 2016-17, and reached a zenith this year, with his 42% field-goal percentage ranking in the 0th (!) percentile. Canaan’s ability to draw shooting fouls has also reached a career-low percentile (32nd).
So, if anything, we can say he has experienced a drop-off this year in finishing and drawing fouls, albeit in a small sample.
Injury: Right tibia/fibula fracture
And now we’ve arrived at the player who may give us the most information in terms of what to expect from Hayward. We have multiple seasons of data from George before and after his injury.
George’s injury wasn’t exactly the same as Hayward’s, but it was similarly in the distal part of his leg. It was sustained in 2014 during a a Team USA scrimmage:
Here’s how his numbers looked like before the injury. After his rookie year, his role began to grow as he took over the Pacers from Danny Granger:
Finishing: Paul George Before Injury
|Frequency (%)||Accuracy (%)||Dunk%||% of Shot Attempts that Drew Fouls|
It’s apparent that even before the injury, George’s grew more well-rounded. In 2011-12 he sat in the 77th percentile for frequency of rim shot attempts, but that dropped to the 50th percentile by 2013-2014. There was a corresponding increase in his mid-range attempts, as he started growing into the player we currently know now (31% of his shot attempts were mid-range his rookie year; that number increased all the way to 41% in 2013-14).
After his injury, he returned to play the final six games of the 2014-15 season. Omitting those games, here is how he fared after his injury:
Finishing: Paul George After Injury
|Frequency (%)||Accuracy (%)||Dunk%||% of All Shot Attempts that Drew Foul|
Something interesting happens. His four least frequent rim-going percentage seasons (and four most frequent mid-range percentage seasons) occur after the injury. His dunk percentage falls off a cliff. George, in effect, began to stay away from the basket.
(I initially thought this apparent tentativeness, like Hayward, is reflected in his dunks the first year post-injury. I reviewed every dunk from George’s 2015-16 season. While he showed more burst than Hayward, I counted one (laborious) dunk that i could unequivocally say originated from a right foot push-off. However, a review of dunks from seasons prior his injury indicate that George seemed to favor a left foot push-off or both feet push-off on his dunks to begin with, so I couldn’t definitively say this was different).
And yet, overall, his rim efficiency has actually improved. While his first season after the injury sees George maintaining his pre-injury effectiveness at the rim, the subsequent seasons actually show improvement when compared to the rest of the league. To wit: while his 64% rim finishing in 2010-11 was only in the 43rd percentile at the time, his identical 64% rim finishing this season ranks in the 71st percentile. What is especially interesting is that fewer of his rim makes are assisted compared to pre-injury (unlike Randle). George isn’t necessarily relying on others to create for him at the rim.
This brings me to something George mentioned about his own injury when asked about Hayward’s:
“And then just being on the court, I’m not as explosive, I’m not as bouncy as I was. It’s something I got to live with now. Thankfully I was able to gain mentally and learn the game a different way spending my time off.”
That quote was from 2017. George seems to have come to terms with the fact that he’s not as explosive as he once was and that this is going to be something that won’t come back. So he developed more of a mid-range and perimeter game. Despite what George implies, however, It’s hard to say this was directly a response to the injury because George started to show this trend the season before he was injured, so perhaps he just continued to take his game to its logical conclusion. But we do know that he was aware that he might be limited in some way.
While George was still pretty accurate at the rim that second year, the volume, and maybe confidence, didn’t match that efficiency. The volume didn’t come until season three. After really shying away from the rim his first two seasons post-injury, it was his third post-injury season where he seemed to settle into the type of player he has now become, not unlike Randle.
What Does This Mean For Hayward?
Hayward’s injury is unique in the sense that it’s hard to find an exact NBA comparison. But using the examples listed above, we can conclude a couple things.
First, it’s not unusual that Hayward is laying off dunking and is a relatively poor finisher his first season back from such a devastating injury. All three players above struggled significantly with finishing in their first post-injury seasons.
Second, Randle and George found their bearings season three after injury, meaning it was two full seasons before they settled into the types of players they would become. In both cases, this involved adapting their games, though it’s unclear whether this was a response to injury or a natural progression of skill development. As it pertains to Hayward, CTG touches on his usage, points per shot attempt, and three-point percentage (or lack thereof). Given that he is displaying a mostly desirable shot distribution, perhaps it’s just a matter of making those shots and that will bear out in a bigger sample over time.
So while we can’t say anything definitive about Hayward, what we can say is this: we likely won’t see his final form this season. We may not even see it next season, either. For the sake of basketball fans everywhere, I hope we see it eventually.
Thanks to Cleaning The Glass and Basketball-reference.com for stats.
Stats through 1/4/19.