Blakely: Hayward's return is the Celtics' biggest X-factor

A. Sherrod Blakely
NBC Sports Boston

BOSTON -- There's no way you can look at the Boston Celtics and not be impressed with their depth.

We're not talking about a team with a solid starting five and some nice filler pieces.

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Boston essentially has two different starting five-caliber lineups it can utilize on a nightly basis.

But for every team with legit title aspirations like the Celtics, there's usually one or two players whose impact will be a major factor in the team's success.

Boston has plenty of candidates to fall under that category, but none stand out more than Gordon Hayward.

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An All-Star in his last season with the Utah Jazz, Hayward suffered a gruesome, season-ending ankle injury in just five minutes into his first year with the Celtics. How he re-integrates his game with his young, battle-tested teammates will be a major factor in Boston's quest to bring Banner 18 to Boston at the end of the season.

"I'm just about full speed," Hayward said last month in an interview with NBC Sports Boston, adding that he was planning to start playing five-on-five this month. "As with everything, see how my ankle reacts to that. So, I'll go and test it out and see where it is. I'm excited to get back on the court."

So are the Celtics, well aware that Hayward's return bodes well for their chances of coming out of the Eastern Conference and getting back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.

With most X-factor types, it comes down to them elevating their game to a certain level.

For Hayward, it's all about getting back to a familiar pace that made him one of the more coveted free agents a couple summers ago.

And in choosing to sign with the Celtics and play for his old college coach Brad Stevens, Hayward became the most highly regarded free agent to ever sign with the Celtics.

However, as he sat out last season getting his body right, the Celtics moved right along and came within a game of getting to the NBA Finals.

His return, as well as that of Kyrie Irving (he missed all of the playoffs due to a knee infection) only strengthens a Celtics roster that was already deep with talent.

But when it comes to Hayward's return, what's a realistic expectation?

While many of the pieces from last season are still around, this is not the same squad he signed on with in 2017.

Many of the questions surrounding how talented was their young core of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier, have been answered.

Reflecting on their overall bodies of work last season, there's no question that each played a prominent role in Boston advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.

And that experience not only gives them added confidence heading into this season, but will allow Hayward to ease his way back into playing following a year off, as opposed to being counted upon from Day One to carry a heavy load.

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Having already established himself in the NBA, there's no added pressure for Hayward to prove anything, to anyone other than himself.

Hayward has acknowledged the mental hurdles of getting back on the floor more than the physical ones, will prove challenging.

But having so many familiar teammates back that he had a chance to see grow before his eyes last season and who come into the season with similar team goals, will make Hayward's transition from spectator to playing, easier.

"We're going to try to win the whole thing," Hayward said. "That's what our goal is; that's where our goal should be. We have the talent to do it.

He added, "I'm going to be focused on training camp, getting through that first practice. It's been so long for me to even be out on the court. I'm very excited about where we can go next year."

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