Later this week, Celtics fans will finally get to see Gordon Hayward play competitive basketball again.
Can’t wait that long for preseason action to begin? Well, then let his teammates provide you with a sneak peek at what they’ve been witnessing of late.
Hayward, who missed all of last season due to a significant ankle injury, has been in Boston since the start of September, working to get his body back up to full speed in time for the start of the 2018-19 campaign. Many of his teammates have been along for the ride, which has included periodic 5-on-5 pick-up-games at the Auerbach Center at New Balance World Headquarters in Brighton.
The general consensus revealed by those teammates Monday afternoon during Media Day was amazement in regard to Hayward’s progression.
“I’ve seen him working out over the last three weeks, since he’s been back in Boston, and he’s really looking good,” said second-year forward Daniel Theis, who is also returning from injury after tearing his meniscus in mid-March. “When you get hurt and when you’ve been out for such a long time, you’ve got to get back the feeling for playing 5-on-5, and I think the hardest challenge for him is going to be the mental part, just going in there, playing with contact again. But when we played our pick-up games, he looked good. He was moving really well, he was shooting the ball really well, so I think for everybody, it’s going to be fun to see him out there.”
Sophomore wing Semi Ojeleye has also enjoyed having Hayward back in the gym. However, judging by the way that the 2017 All-Star has performed, it’s almost as if he never even left.
“If you didn’t know what happened, you wouldn’t have guessed that he had that kind of injury,” Ojeleye explained. “The way he looks now is great. I think he’s growing more confident every day with what he can do on the court, and he’s getting back to that form that we saw before he became a Celtic.”
Hayward’s yearlong journey has come with gradual progression, and being able to return to the court with his teammates has been the most gratifying aspect of it so far. The 28-year-old has been able to do simple drills over the last several months, however, none of those could compare to the feeling of playing in a competitive setting again.
“There’s nothing like playing basketball,” Hayward said while addressing the media Monday afternoon in Canton, Massachusetts. “There’s nothing like doing in-game stuff that you can’t get from drills. You’re guarding somebody, you’re reacting, you’re getting a rebound and trying to go straight back up with it. Those things I can’t really practice, so to have the ability to do that was really big for me.”
The next big step for Hayward will come Tuesday. That’s when the Celtics will hold their first official practice of the preseason, of which the recovered wing plans to be a full participant.
Boston will hold two-a-day sessions on both Tuesday and Wednesday, before flying to Charlotte on Thursday ahead of Friday’s preseason opener against the Hornets. And that is when fans will finally get to see Hayward back in his element.
At this time, Hayward is not sure whether or not there will be any early-season limitations placed on him by the team’s medical staff, but once he is given the full green light, he’ll be pushing the gas pedal all the way to the floor.
“Once they tell me I can go and do whatever, I’m just going to go at it at full speed,” he said. “I think that’s what I have to do. I just have to jump right into it.”
With that being said, Hayward knows that there will be hiccups along the way. There will be times when he gets beat on the defensive end, and there will be times when he makes a miscue on an offensive possession. But he understands that that’s all part of the process for a player who has just missed an entire year of basketball.
“That’s the part where I have to find my rhythm, find my groove a little bit,” he explained. “And I think the pick-up games that we’ve had have been good for that, but there’s still only been four or five times that I’ve played. So preseason, coming into the season, I’m still going to be finding my way a little bit. And I think that’s fine, but I’m going to have to go and just attack it.”
Hayward’s attacking mentality has already left a strong impression on his teammates before the 2018-19 season has even begun. And later this week, Celtics fans will finally get to see it for themselves.