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Boston Celtics can afford to take it slow with Gordon Hayward


Gordon Hayward recovery videos circulate the internet at a rate that mirrors the hype for his first Celtics debut. The NBA officially announced that that will occur on Oct. 16 against the 76ers, one day short of the one-year anniversary of Hayward’s actual first game in green that lasted only six minutes.

The scene at TD Garden for Hayward’s first minutes at home will likely elicit nervous chills in the wake of Kevin Harlan’s call of “Hayward has broken his leg” last year, but after those jitters subside, the integration of Hayward into Brad Stevens’ plans figures to progress slowly.

How they handle Hayward will quickly become evident after the opener against Philadelphia, when the Cs play the Raptors and Knicks back to back on the road on Oct. 19 and 20. Through those three games we’ll receive an idea of both what kinds of minutes the Celts’ new analytically driven medical staff expects from him and whether or not they’ll push him through the rigor of two consecutive games with travel wedged in between.

The staff facilitating Hayward’s journey back to the court already indicated through their slow progression through the 2017-18 season to expect the unexpected. Medical experts and recreational players who underwent the same injury chimed in on their own recovery path, many indicating that Hayward could return during last season. Others drew parallels to Paul George’s August 2014 broken leg, which he leaped back from and on to the court just before the 2014-15 season concluded. That never happened for Hayward.

In October, people fantasized about a March return. If not, then certainly he would be back for the late stages of the NBA Playoffs. With the Cs on the precipice of the NBA Finals in June, the team continued to dismiss endless speculation about Hayward given the initial hope. CLNS Media’s Nick Gelso pointed out on this week’s CelticsBlog Podcast that Stevens eventually poked fun at the incessant questioning, responding sarcastically to a hopeless question: “yes, Hayward’s starting tonight.”

Those questions will continue to swirl around Hayward and Stevens when Media Day arrives in September. For all the views Hayward’s preseason tape from last year have unimaginably garnered, we still don’t have a definitive timetable on if he’ll even participate in this year’s.

Boston has not pressed their $128-million star through any stage of the process, even as he optimistically dribbles, stops and shoots in Drew Hanlen videos. There’s no apparent sign of the weakness in his leg that shocked TNT viewers before the camera quickly panned away. He is even catching and distributing mini balls while moving laterally with little visible hindrance.

There’s no clear sign that it is anything but full speed ahead for Hayward, but until the team indicates their plan for him this fall—or he begins balling in the flow of actual competition—it is worth tempering expectations.

George regressed statistically in his first season back, shooting 41 percent across 81 games and the Pacers scraped 1.4 minutes per game off the total from his previous healthy season. Without the luxury of the deep bench that the Celtics possess, he played out the year without rest nights. George had a fine season while scoring 23 points per game, a mark that still ranks second in his career, but he wasn’t the same efficient scorer as before.

That’s what Hayward is up against: returning to the best basketball shape of his career he had reached in 2016-17, when he was a first-time All-Star for the Jazz.

George didn’t entirely return to form in ‘15-16—though he did draw close by increasing his three-point efficiency and volume, which is something Hayward can certainly recreate—and those expectations shouldn’t immediately hit Hayward either, even while the team’s stakes increase next year.

“There is no need to push guys to play much beyond 30 minutes a night with the depth we have,” a source told CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith. There’s a reason Marcus Morris is still here despite the luxury-tax implications. It’s not worth rushing something when there is no urgency to do so.

Remember that while Hayward shot at a 40-percent clip from outside while commanding the pick-and-roll for the Jazz, he also relied on a vertical that rivaled Blake Griffin’s (30.5” to Griffin’s 32”). Hayward’s athleticism is a pillar in his complete arsenal of basketball attributes. We’ve seen him splash threes over the summer. There isn’t a video of him dunking yet.

And that’s fine.

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