As Gordon Hayward sets a new course with the Thunder, he’ll try not to rock the boat

As Gordon Hayward sets a new course with the Thunder, he’ll try not to rock the boat

The Thunder went 37-17 without Gordon Hayward. The new OKC forward’s goal is to add what he can without distracting from what came before.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 21, 2024, 4:00pm CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 21, 2024, 4:00pm CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Not long after the Thunder traded for Gordon Hayward, it got his family geared up. 

The organization provided “little Thunder jerseys,” Hayward said, for his four kids, whom he said were “super excited” about the trade that brought him from Charlotte to OKC. 

“They love going to the games — mostly to watch, like, the dancers and stuff,” Hayward said Wednesday, his first meeting with reporters since the Feb. 8 trade. “But they’re definitely excited about going.”

That won’t be a nightly thing. 

Hayward’s kids — three daughters and a son — will finish the school year in Charlotte, where Hayward’s wife, Robyn, will remain for now.

There will be some visits, some distance learning. The Haywards still are working out the details, but there will be time apart. 

And that’s just one of the adjustments facing Hayward over the next two-plus months as he takes on a new role in a new town for a team fighting for playoff positioning. 

There’s the matter of his health. Hayward’s returning from a left calf strain, and though the 6-foot-7 veteran practiced with the Thunder on Wednesday and is cleared to make his OKC debut Thursday when the Clippers visit Paycom Center, he last played Dec. 26. 

And, following the first in-season trade of his 14-year career, Hayward has a significant on-court adjustment. He’ll be playing off a superstar in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, searching for a fit next to up-and-comers Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren. 

Hayward called those “two different challenges to be met,” learning new teammates and coaches and an all-new system while also trying to “find your rhythm and find your legs” coming off an injury.

So Hayward is seeking his sea legs and setting a new course, and he has to do both without rocking a boat that had sailed smoothly to a 37-17 record without him. 

“I mean, we’re rolling,” Hayward said. “They were rolling way before, long before I got here. So I’m not trying to disrupt that. I’m trying to add to it and just help us in any way that I can.”

But Hayward has teammates and terminology to learn, at both ends of the floor.

Most of his conversations so far, he said, have centered on defense, on OKC’s philosophy and where he fits in. 

Do that, Hayward figures, and “the offense will come.” 

And it all might come slowly.

It’s not a given that Hayward will see the court against the Clippers — “He’s available tomorrow night and we’ll see the role he plays,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said — and the plan from the start has been for OKC to take its time in integrating him. 

It’ll be comparably cautious with free-agent center signee Bismack Biyombo. He’s also available Thursday, but Biyombo will be a “situational player for us,” Daigneault said, a bruiser who can provide a different defensive look on the front line and offer some advice for younger Thunder bigs. 

“Generally if it’s the beginning of the year, we try to throw them out there and be pretty aggressive with new players because everybody’s starting from the same place,” Daigneault said. “But midseason I think is different. You have to account for the fact that the train’s already moving; the team already has an existing rhythm together, an existing chemistry that we’ve obviously benefited from. That’s a delicate thing.”

Hayward and Biyombo understand that balance, Daigneault said. And so the Thunder can slow play any change to its rotation over the final 28 games of the regular season. 

“That’s a lot of time, not only for integrating (Hayward) but also to understand we’ve had a nice season to this point, but it’s not even close to over,” Daigneault said. “And so we got to keep our foot on the gas and continue to improve, and that includes everything. It includes integrating (Hayward) and Bismack and it also includes continuing to build, continuing to grow and not resting on anything that we’ve already done. And we’ve got a team I think that’s got the mentality to do that. But we have to have the discipline to do it.”

It’s off to a good start. 

Daigneault offered to cut practice short Wednesday, only to have his players insist they wanted to continue. He “pulled the plug,” he said, once he figured out “they would have gone for three hours today if I let them.” 

Hayward compared the energy of the day to “being a new kid at school,” although his No. 33 jersey — chosen to match his age — was a reminder that he has some years on his new classmates. 

Last week, Gilgeous-Alexander called Hayward “a guy that will help any team he goes to and for sure will help us,” and said he’s “excited to get to work with him.” 

That work has started, but it might take some time to finish the job as Hayward adapts to his new workplace. 

Hayward averaged 14.5 points on 11.9 shots per game this season for the Hornets. 

In three-plus seasons with the Hornets, Hayward averaged 16.3 points on 12.8 field-goal attempts, including 14.5 points on 11.9 shots this season. 

Hayward started 167 of the 168 games he played in Charlotte and hasn’t averaged fewer than 30 minutes since the 2018-19 season in Boston when he was coming off a season-ending opening-night injury in 2017.

In OKC, he figures to have a smaller role and a sizable adjustment. 

But Hayward said Daigneault’s system  — ball and player movement, reading before the catch and making plays when the ball hits your hands – “fits right up my alley (of) what I want to do,” and that’s a start.  

“I’ve just been focused on trying to do what I can to help us win, no matter how long that is out there on the court,” Hayward said. “I think that if you’re focused on that, everything else will take care of itself.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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