It’s been more than 15 months since Gordon Hayward signed with the Celtics and roughly one year since the All-Star forward suffered a gruesome ankle/leg injury in Boston’s 2017-18 regular-season opener against the Cavaliers in Cleveland. For Hayward, the path surely seems even longer than that.
But on Tuesday, he’ll step onto the TD Garden floor for his first regular-season game in a Celtics uniform. The emotions surrounding his much-anticipated return are real. Very real.
“Definitely a little anxious, just a little bit nervous. I think that’s natural, though,” Hayward said ahead of Boston’s 2018-19 season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers, according to NBC Sports Boston. “Once you get out there and get your blood flowing and get up and down the court a couple times, that’ll go away. Just looking forward to being out there, that’s a big step for me. Like I said in the preseason, too, being out there on the floor after what happened is a big step.”
This isn’t Hayward’s first game action since the season-ending injury he suffered last October. He played in three exhibition games with Boston in recent weeks before sitting out the team’s preseason finale on Oct. 6 due to back pain.
It’s the first meaningful game for Hayward since that fateful night in Cleveland, though. And he’s clearly champing at the bit despite the understandable nervousness surrounding his return and the 25-minute restriction Celtics coach Brad Stevens plans to impose as the 28-year-old eases his way back into things.
“I’m going to go in and play as hard as I can when I’m out there on the floor,” Hayward said, per NBC Sports Boston. “That’s something that, as a player, you can’t stand — minutes and limiting the amount of minutes. I think if you would ask all the players, they’d want to be out there the whole game.
“I understand, as far as what happened, and then trying to make sure that I’m kinda going at an upward path. First game of the year, it’s the goal, and so I have to accept that. When I’m out there, I’m going to be playing hard, hard as I can.”
Hayward averaged a career-high 21.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in his final season with the Utah Jazz before signing with the Celtics in free agency in July 2017. He’s expected to eventually play a huge role for a Boston team with NBA Finals aspirations, but he’s well aware there will be skeptics until he shows his injury doesn’t pose a threat to his potential this season and beyond.
“Just internally, proving to myself that I can be the same player that I was,” Hayward said. “I want to get back out there on the court and show everybody what I can do.”
The Celtics are loaded, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown evolving into game-changers last season alongside Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, among others. That’ll allow Stevens to play it safe with Hayward, although it might not be long before the training wheels officially come off and it’s business as usual for one of the NBA’s more talented two-way players.