Celtics forward Gordon Hayward is highly unlikely to resume playing this season, after fracturing and dislocating his left tibia just over five minutes into Tuesday’s season opener, in the view of five Boston orthopedic surgeons who are not involved with his care.
But some predicted Hayward would recover fully and return to play next season.
“It will probably be a long road for him,” said Dr. Christopher W. DiGiovanni, chief of the Division of Foot & Ankle Surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. But at the end, DiGiovanni said, “He can go back to the same level of play and performance.”
But that will take time, said Dr. Elizabeth G. Matzkin, an orthopedic surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“You have to give it time to heal,” she said, “and then you have to rehab and get back all the strength and endurance.
“I don’t think it’s career-ending by any means.”
Dr. Christopher Geary, chief of sports medicine at Tufts Medical Center, said it may take as long as two seasons for Hayward to restore the skill that led the Celtics to sign him to a four-year, $128 million contract in July.
None of the doctors interviewed knew any details about the nature and extent of Hayward’s injury. But all saw photos of the 6-foot-8-inch star lying on the court, his foot bent at an unnatural angle.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Hayward, 27, suffered a fractured and dislocated tibia.
And that, the ankle specialists agree, means weeks to months before Hayward is on his feet again, followed by additional months of rehabilitation. They cautioned that many variables could affect his recovery.
Two key concerns are the fractures of the tibia, the larger bone in the shin, and the condition of the ligaments, the tough bands that connect bone to bone.
The fractured tibia probably will require surgery, possibly involving screws or plates, which are likely to be left in place if they don’t cause problems. The difficulty of the surgery and recovery will depend on the severity and location of the fracture.
If Hayward’s only injury were a bone fracture, his recovery would go faster, DiGiovanni said.
“Bone heals with bone,” he said. “It’s almost as good as new.”
But ligaments are another story; their healing produces scar tissue. And the ligaments most likely were stretched or torn with the dislocation.
It’s critical to restore the ligament to its normal resting length; otherwise the ankle can be left loose and unstable, DiGiovanni said. Sometimes the ligament will heal on its own once the bones are stabilized. For more severe injuries, doctors may use sutures or other devices to stabilize the ligament.
A third concern — possible damage to the cartilage — could put Hayward at risk of arthritis, although probably not for years.
As many as 75 percent of people with this type of injury suffer cartilage damage inside the ankle, which can lead to arthritis, said Dr. John Y. Kwon, chief of the Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Service at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
“In some people it never happens,” he said. “In some people even after a year or two, they have problems with it.”
Opinions varied on the likely pace and extent of Hayward’s recovery.
“He’s certainly out for this year but he may have troubles in the future,” Kwon said.
But Dr. A. Holly Johnson, a foot and ankle surgeon at Mass. General, said that, functionally, he may be as good as new when it comes to playing basketball.
“Certainly there is a possibility that he regains all his strength and function,” Johnson said. “He may always feel like this ankle is more stiff, so it will never be exactly the same. That doesn’t necessarily translate into his playing potential.”
DiGiovanni said Hayward’s recovery will involve more than bone and ligament: “Part of it is going to be mental. He’s going to have to learn how to trust his ankle again.”
And Geary, of Tufts, said one of the biggest challenges will come not from medical care, but from the dramatic change in the way Hayward lives his life.
“It’s going to be a little tough for him,” said Geary. “He is not going to be running, jumping, doing basketball activities for a number of months. And this is a guy who, since he was 6 years old, has been doing this.”