BRIGHTON, Mass. – When Gordon Hayward went down with a season-ending leg injury just six minutes into his Celtics career, Boston’s hopes of knocking off LeBron and the Cavs to claim the Eastern Conference basically vanished.
Sure, they proceeded to run off an inconceivable 16-game winning streak and wound up taking Cleveland to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the most prized free agent in the 2017 class was gone — the one that was slated to team with fellow All-Star Kyrie Irving in hopes of knocking off LeBron.
Now Hayward is back, playing 5-on-5 with his Boston teammates for the past couple of weeks, going through drills – all without any restrictions.
“I would say I’m basically 100 percent, there’s certain things that I think are going to take time even if I was 100 percent healthy,” Hayward said on Thursday afternoon. “I’m not 100 percent as far as basketball-wise, just because I haven’t played in a year.”
Hayward isn’t looking back through the past 11 months, even though it gave him a different perspective on basketball and even his life. Gone are the days of picking up marbles with his toes and putting them in a bucket, of the balance drills and shooting seated from a chair. He was ahead of schedule for a while, even though there was no chance of him returning last season, until he needed a second surgery in late-May to remove the plate and screws from his leg during the first surgery.
He said he hasn’t watched the video of the gruesome injury when he broke his left leg and dislocated his ankle, the injury that had nearly every player on the court — from both teams — running away in disbelief of what they had just seen.
“I don’t plan on watching the video,” Hayward said. “I’m moving forward and past it.”
As long as he doesn’t have any setbacks between now and the season-opener on Oct. 16 against the new Eastern Conference rival 76ers, Hayward will be on the floor and, almost certainly, in the starting lineup.
“It’s not something I’m worried about at all,” Hayward said when asked about getting the nod as a starter. “We’re worried about winning and putting another banner up behind you. We have so much depth and so much talent, it doesn’t matter who starts for me. My goal is to help us get that banner.”
The banner will almost certainly have to go through Golden State, but with the departure of LeBron to Los Angeles, this Celtics team looks far more adept at actually posing a challenge to the Warriors than the one that took the court to start the season a year ago.
While it was taboo to mention it when Hayward went down, there was a silver lining with his injury, and with the late-season one that kept Irving out of the postseason.
It gave rookie Jayson Tatum an opportunity to be more than just a sit-in-the-corner shooter, which is essentially what he was for the first half of the year. It allowed Jaylen Brown to expand his offensive game and enabled Terry Rozier to show he’s more than capable of starting in the league.
Hayward was the clear-cut No. 2 scoring option a year ago at this time. Now that role will likely fall to Tatum, who averaged 18.2 points in the postseason and came up one point shy of tying the NBA’s playoff rookie scoring mark, held by none other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Hayward will still be a huge part of Brad Stevens’ plans, much in the same way of Al Horford. Hayward isn’t going to average 21.9 points per game, as was the case in his final season in Utah two years ago, but look more for him to stuff the stat sheet and put up in the neighborhood of 16 points, five rebounds and five assists, which is what he did with the Jazz back in 2013-14.
This team is loaded with weapons: Irving, Tatum, Hayward, Horford and Brown with Rozier, Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes making up the top nine in the rotation.
“I’ve been playing with some of them these last two weeks and we have a lot of talent on this team,” Hayward said. “We have a lot of depth and it’s going to be a fun year.”
According to one Celtics source, Hayward has been impressive in pickup games in the last week or so. His shot has been falling, the ball moves even better with him on the court, and he hasn’t missed a beat in terms of his decision-making on both ends of the court.
“He’s further along that I thought he’d be,” the source said. “But the thing with Gordon is that his game isn’t built on athleticism, even though he’s more athletic than people realize.”
The one area that is still missing?
“The last step for me as far as from a physical standpoint is a little explosion, that little last juice bounce that you get,” he said. “So that’s going to take me the longest time, but like I said, for the most part I feel very good.”
Considering where he was 11 months ago, Hayward and Celtics fans are fine with “very good.”