BOSTON — In the name of preservation, Gordon Hayward will start the season on a minutes restriction with the Boston Celtics.
Hayward signed a four-year deal with the Celtics in July 2017, one of the biggest free-agent deals that summer. On opening night of last season, just three months later, he suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in recent NBA memory, a dislocated ankle and fractured tibia, in the opening minutes of his debut with the Celtics, ending his season.
After a year away from the game, he is ready to be back in the thick of things, but it won't come without limitations when the Celtics host the 76ers on Tuesday night to open the 2018-19 campaign.
"He'll be a little bit restricted from a minutes standpoint as we progress through this early part of the season," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after practice Monday. "That's just to make sure we ramp it back up so that he's feeling great towards the end of the year and years beyond."
Stevens said Hayward would play roughly 25 minutes per game for the first couple weeks of the season. It's the safe and smart way to approach the season, considering the Celtics' goals are the same as the Sixers'. Both teams plan on competing for an NBA championship.
With those goals in mind, the limited playing time is a tough pill to swallow for Hayward.
"That's something that as a player you can't stand," he said. "If you were to ask all the players, I think we all want to be out there the whole game. But I understand as far as what happened and trying to make sure that I'm going on an upward path. I have to accept that."
Though Hayward is known by his teammates as a quiet and reserved leader, it's no surprise to Stevens that Hayward wants more than anything to be going full bore to start the season. Hayward's competitive nature is something the coach says most people miss, don't pick up on, or fail to mention when talking about the 28-year-old small forward.
"People talk about his skills and talk about how good he is off pick-and-rolls and those type of things, but he's a competitive guy. That's where it starts," Stevens said.
Even though Hayward is itching to get back on the floor and play competitively, this year's opening night has a little more meaning and is a significant step that makes him anxious, nervous, excited, and everything in between.
"I think that's natural, though," he said. "Once you get out there, get your blood flowing, get up and down the court a little bit, that'll go away. Just looking forward to being out there, that's a big step for me."
While he can still tell that his left ankle is the one that was injured — he's not yet as explosive off his left foot as he is off the right and continues to rehab and regain strength — Hayward assures that he is feeling healthy, that there aren't any setbacks, and that he's ready to go.
The past week of practice after the conclusion of the preseason has been a solid period of improvement for Hayward, and his teammates have noticed.
"He was a little rusty coming in, and now he's out here dunking the ball off the ankle and everything," Marcus Smart said. "In preseason, it felt like he couldn't buy a shot. Everything was on line; it was just a little bit short. We got him into practice and started running five-on-five and he was getting to the rim and getting more explosive. Those shots that were short are now going in, and he's looking like his old self."
That's good news for the Celtics, who missed not only Hayward's production last season, but also the production of Kyrie Irving, who played only 60 games (and none in the playoffs) because of a knee injury. That'll be different Tuesday, as the Celtics saddle up with a fully healthy squad to open against the Sixers.