BOSTON – The wait is almost over.
The dividends from countless days and hours of rehabilitation and recovery are on the cusp of paying off for Gordon Hayward as he gets back on the court after missing all but the first five minutes of last season, his first with the Celtics.
With such a long layoff, what’s a realistic expectation for Hayward upon his return?
Two NBA players, one current and one former, who have each missed extensive time with injuries, understand all too well the challenges Hayward has had to deal with as he nears the end of his road to recovery.
“Boredom. Boredom is always the toughest thing,” said former Celtics guard Chauncey Billups, who suffered an assortment of injuries that limited him to averaging just 46 games played in his first three seasons. “You get yourself into a rhythm, a ritual, you’re at the gym every day working with the guys.”
But when the injury comes…
“You’re training by yourself,” Billups told NBC Sports Boston. “You’re bored, training by yourself, guys go on the road, you’re sitting there watching it on TV, like you’re not on the team. And you can get yourself stressed and depressed because of that.”
For Billups, those tough times made him a mentally tougher player.
Despite the injury-riddled start to his career, Billups would become a five-time All-Star, an NBA champion and Finals MVP (2004) – all with the Detroit Pistons.
“Mentally you end up coming back so much stronger because you learn a lot about yourself in those lonely days, a lot about your resolve,” Billups said.
Former Boston College star Reggie Jackson agreed, but cautions that it’ll take Hayward time to get back to the level at which he’s accustomed to playing.
“You’re a shell of yourself when you first come back,” Jackson told NBC Sports Boston. “That’s the toughest part… every player that makes it here, has some type of greatness. So, you can’t be that until you’re full-go again.”
Jackson missed the first 20 games of the 2016-17 season with left knee tendinitis and an ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) sprain of his right thumb.
The following season, Jackson was again out for an extended period (24 games), this time with a Grade 3 ankle sprain.
“You can’t make plays you’re accustomed to, at first,” Jackson said. “It’s very tasking, mentally. You can see the joy of everybody else running around. It feels like you’re being punished; everybody else is running around outside, everybody doing their thing, having fun and you can’t be yourself. It’s tough at first, but it’ll help with the growth of [Hayward’s] game.”
Hayward’s last full season was in Utah, ending with him being named an All-Star for the first time and the Jazz getting to the playoffs, where they were knocked out in the second round by the Golden State Warriors.
As good as Hayward was before his injury, both Billups and Jackson believe Hayward will be even better upon his return.
“It’ll help him mentally learn the game and once he gets the physical back, I’m sure he’s going to be scary,” Jackson said. “Everybody knows what kind of player he is. When he gets healthy, he’s going to be great for them.”
Billups added, “Gordon is going to be better than ever when he comes back.”
And Hayward is admittedly eager to get back on the floor ASAP.
“I’m excited man,” Hayward told NBC Sports Boston. “I’m excited to get back out on the court.”