Nearly a year has passed since Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the first quarter of the Celtics’ first game of the season. The 11 months since then have been filled with a combination of determination, frustration, and hope.
There were times Hayward wondered if he would ever be able to return to his All-Star form. But more often, there was a belief that the gruesome ankle fracture would essentially just be an unfortunate detour.
Over the last two weeks, Hayward has been playing in five-on-five, full-court scrimmages again. The only restriction is that there is a limit, at least for now, on the number of scrimmages he can take part in.
“It’s so much fun being able to play again, and play with my teammates,” Hayward said Thursday, “and using these past two weeks, and the next month or so, will be good to kind of get back into the game, feel the rhythm, the timing, different things like that. But it feels pretty good.”
Hayward said he is “basically 100 percent” healthy. But he cautioned that just because he is healthy does not mean his game is back just yet.
“I’m not 100 percent as far as basketball-wise, just because I haven’t played in a year,” he said. “I’m trying to figure those things out. The last step for me as far as from a physical standpoint is a little explosion, that little last juice-bounce that you get. So that’s going to take me the longest time, but like I said, for the most part I feel very good.”
Hayward said he fully expects to play in the Celtics’ Oct. 16 season opener at home against the 76ers. He still has more than a month to regain his basketball rhythm, and he said that grueling practices with this loaded Boston team combined with the four-game preseason slate should accelerate the process a bit, too.
“There’s nothing like playing five-on-five,” Hayward said, “so when I play out here with my teammates, when we get into practice situations, that’s going to be the best. Playing in the preseason games, that will be the best work I can get.”
Hayward signed a four-year, $128 million max contract with the Celtics in July 2017. After his opening season was derailed, he stepped back and watched his teammates surge to the brink of the NBA Finals without him and Kyrie Irving, and it left him even more encouraged about what could be possible.
“Watching the guys last year just gave me a lot of confidence in our team and what I think we have the ability to do, to accomplish,” Hayward said. “I’ve been playing with some of them these last two weeks, and we have a lot of talent on this team. We have a lot of depth, and it’s going to be a fun year.”
Although Hayward’s rehabilitation was grueling and often quite tedious, the obvious physical progress was encouraging. He said that sometimes the hardest part was the mental challenge. Sometimes he just did not want to wake up on a frigid Boston morning and do exercises like putting marbles in a bucket with his toes while his teammates were on the road somewhere playing meaningful games.
“Especially right when it happened, there definitely are some dark days, some days where you just don’t know if you’re going to be the same player,” Hayward said. “[It’s] kind of like,
What’s on the horizon? What’s the future look like?”
But Hayward said his family, faith, friends, and teammates helped him through the rocky moments. From Celtics staffers traveling to work out with him at his home in San Diego to center Aron Baynes bringing him a box of his favorite doughnuts after a road trip, Hayward managed to feel engaged with the team that still seemed somewhat distant.
“I mean, it was a process and a journey,” Hayward said. “I’m still not there yet, but it just helped me find kind of a fight in me.”
Hayward said he has not intentionally watched footage of his injury, but acknowledged that in today’s social media world it was nearly impossible to avoid it completely. Still, he has moved on from that and is moving forward. He said he has been able to block out the injury when he is on the court, and hasn’t had any fear while doing potentially anxiety-inducing things like cutting or jumping.
“It’s just working my way back into a groove, finding the different rhythms, the timings of the game,” Hayward said. “I played four times five-on-five after not playing for a year. That part is going to take some time and just figuring out those timings, those things over the years when you just play, it just comes naturally. When you take a long break like that, you have to kind of find it again. That’s what I’m using this time for. Like I said, I’ll use preseason and then I’ll be rolling.”