Nearly 10 months after suffering a brutal left leg injury just six minutes into his first game with the Boston Celtics, Gordon Hayward has reached a new milestone in his ongoing work toward a return to the court: dunking through contact.
— Jason Smeathers (@smeathers5) August 13, 2018
Yes, all short summertime video clips of NBA players bodying up trainers should be taken with a grain of salt, and no, it’s not the most thunderous throwdown you’ve ever seen in your life. But considering how things looked for Hayward when he went down in a horrifying heap just six minutes into the Celtics’ 2017-18 season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers, ending his season before it could even get underway, Hayward driving to his right, leaning into the lane on that surgically repaired left leg, taking off and putting one down still qualifies as a sight for sore eyes.
The 28-year-old forward has progressed inch by inch since last October, moving from surgery to sit-down shooting, from shedding an ankle boot to jogging on his own steam, and from dribbling into jumpers to, now, attacking off the bounce and finishing through a defender. How long it’ll take him to overcome any understandable mental hurdles that come with returning to the court after such a traumatic injury remains to be seen, but it appears that Hayward — who proclaimed himself “just about full speed” last month — is getting awfully close to all the way from a physical standpoint, which is pretty great.
Despite his persistent optimism, Hayward wasn’t able to make it all the way back to the court before the end of last season, watching from afar as the Celtics banded together without him and fellow injured All-Star Kyrie Irving to make it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals before bowing out to LeBron James and the Cavs. Both he and Irving are expected to be back in uniform when the Celtics open training camp next month, joining All-Star center Al Horford, precocious wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and dynamic reserves Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier on a team widely expected to replace the now-LeBron-less Cavs as the East’s representatives in the NBA Finals.
If Hayward and Irving return at full strength, and the rest of the Celtics come in at the top of their game, head coach Brad Stevens might have his hands full parsing out minutes and dividing responsibilities among the members of a stacked Boston roster. Then again, considering that would mean getting a swingman one year removed from averaging 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game on 47/40/84 shooting splits and making the West’s All-Star team back in the fold after playing without him for all but six minutes last season, that would seem to qualify as one of those good problems.
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