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Knicks face Hornets' Gordon Hayward, a player they coveted

Charlotte Hornets' Gordon Hayward, left, goes up for

Charlotte Hornets' Gordon Hayward, left, goes up for a shot against Philadelphia 76ers' Shake Milton during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) Credit: AP/Matt Slocum

When Gordon Hayward opted out of the player option in his contract with the Boston Celtics just ahead of free agency, he immediately moved to the top of the board of available players and became the object of interest for any team with cap space.

The Knicks just happened to have a huge pile of cash and cap space. But even with new team president Leon Rose hopeful of making a splash, Hayward’s injury history and the rising price pushed them out of the running.

Monday night presented the first opportunity for the Knicks to face Hayward and the team that went all in on him, the Charlotte Hornets. They signed him to a four-year, $120 million deal after he turned down the $34.2 million option with the Celtics.

They also drafted LaMelo Ball, whom some saw as a risky prospect, at No. 3 overall. He already has begun to show hints of the potential he holds, including a triple-double on Saturday.

"They’re probably playing as hard and as well as anybody in the league right now," Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said before the game. "Obviously, I think adding two players in particular has really added a lot to their team in Gordon Hayward and Ball. I think when you have that type of passing, their vision and unselfishness and their length, they can pass over people and they make good decisions. So I think it makes them special.

"And then they have a number of players I think are really skilled, that can put it on the floor, and their willingness to share the ball with each other is making them play at such a high level right now."

As the Knicks struggle to find a consistent offensive piece to put next to Julius Randle, Hayward entered Monday averaging a team-high 21.4 points per game.

"Well, we looked at all the free agents," Thibodeau said. "And so we’ll just leave it at that, but we know how talented he is. We had him rated pretty high on our board. There were a number of guys who we thought would fit us. It didn’t work out this time. And we’ll see how it works out in the future.

"I had a pretty good understanding of his game because of my time in the Western Conference and watching him grow there, and his playmaking ability is really what stood out to me. There’s a lot of guys who get points, but they’re not high- assist guys. He’s always been a high-assist guy. He reminded me of Jimmy Butler in that way in terms of his decision-making and ability to make other people better. And that goes a long way."

RJ Barrett has been the Knicks’ second option but is shooting just 37.8% overall and 20% from three-point range (9-for-45).

Thibodeau thinks Barrett will get on track. "Yes, I think it will eventually come," he said. "I think as long as he’s taking the right ones. It’s a big part of the NBA game, I think, understanding the value of those shots. But there are a lot of other things he does well. Putting it on the floor, drawing more than one defender, spraying it out, finishing in the restricted, drawing fouls, things that can get you high-value shots.

"We want him to play an all-around game. He can post the ball. He can drive the ball well. And I think as time goes on, he’ll shoot the ball better and better from the perimeter."

Notes & quotes: Reggie Bullock was held out of Monday’s game with a sore right hip and will be evaluated in New York on Tuesday by team doctors. Austin Rivers took his place in the starting lineup Monday.

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