SALT LAKE CITY — During Gordon Hayward‘s injury-imposed time away from basketball, between the long hours of rehab and the quality time with his family, the Boston Celtics forward would find an hour or so to slip away, log onto his computer and jump into “League of Legends,” the popular multiplayer online game.
“It just gave my mind a distraction especially on nights when I really couldn’t sleep,” Hayward told ESPN. “I was thinking about a lot of different things.
“It was a chance to hang out. Talk with friends. Get my mind off of it.”
So when Riot Games, the company behind the game, came to Hayward with the idea of starring in a commercial for it, he embraced the idea of building one around the similarities between his storyline and that of his favorite character — Tryndamere, a Barbarian King with a unique special skill: the ability to come back to life when he’s on the verge of death.
“Right before he dies, he can cast his ultimate [skill],” Hayward said. “Then, he gets a period of time where he builds back up strength, essentially.
“When talking with them, I thought that fit perfectly with what happened with me, and rehab, and coming back.”
Friday night, Hayward will come back to the court at Vivint Smart Home Arena for the first time since his decision to leave the Utah Jazz as a free agent to join the Celtics in July 2017. He won’t do so, though, as the All-Star he was when he left — at least, not yet.
Instead, he returns as a player still in the midst of his recovery phase after suffering the most traumatic event of his basketball life, losing all but the first six minutes of last season after suffering a fractured left tibia and dislocated ankle in a fall during Boston’s season opener in Cleveland. Hayward is still inching his way back to being the impactful piece the Celtics expected to be adding to their roster 18 months ago.
How long that recovery phase takes could very well prove to be the difference between Boston facing a third consecutive exit in the Eastern Conference finals — or celebrating the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals in close to a decade.
Even under ideal circumstances, making up for a missed season would take time. Basketball, as much as any sport, is a game built on timing, rhythm and precision. All of those traits take constant practice and repetition to perfect; spending a year watching them atrophy requires even more work to bring them back to life.
That is where Hayward, 28, finds himself as he makes his return to the place where he spent the first seven years of his NBA career. For every step forward, like his performance last week against the Milwaukee Bucks (18 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists in 27 minutes), there are reminders of his missed time, like his performance two nights later against his hometown Indiana Pacers, when he shot 2-for-10 and scored 4 points in 26 minutes. Hayward has been held to single digits five times already in just 10 games; he had six such games during his entire final season with the Jazz.
An inconsistent start, though, was to be expected. Not only is Hayward still on a minutes limit, one that keeps him in the mid-20s every night and has him playing in several short bursts throughout the game, but there’s also that prior muscle memory to get back.
Even as his season has started slowly, there are glimmers of hope for the future — moments when the player he once was, and hopes to be once again, shows himself for an instant. One came in that game against the Bucks, when Hayward landed with all his weight on his left leg — the first time he did so since suffering that life-changing injury last year in Cleveland — after attempting to block a shot.
As more such moments take place, and Hayward continues to come through them unscathed, he’ll keep moving closer to returning to the player he once was.
“I think catching an alley-oop, going up and dunking … I know I think one for me would be able to go to dunk it in traffic,” Hayward said. “Kind of explode with people around me. There are a lot of those things I don’t really plan out in my head that happen naturally in a game, so hopefully I do it without thinking.
“I do it instinctually, and then everything is fine.”
In a sport full of split-second decisions, the difference between thinking and reacting is often the difference between winning and losing. As that rust continues to be chipped away from Hayward’s game, more of the instincts are coming out, and the thinking is going away.
Even through these first 10 games, Celtics center Al Horford has seen growth from Hayward on that front.
“The way he’s attacking the ball off the pick-and-roll,” Horford said. “When you set a high screen, he’s attacking. He’s getting to the basket. He’s starting to get comfortable finishing.
“The first couple games, there were times he could have done that but he would stop short and shoot a pull-up. That’s a way that I’m looking at progress right there.”
Beyond simply regaining his skills on the court, Hayward is making his return in unfamiliar surroundings. He essentially hasn’t played since he was starring for the Jazz as the hub of everything they did under head coach Quin Snyder. While Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who recruited him to Butler University, is obviously a familiar face, Hayward finds himself on a roster filled with other scoring options.
And while he certainly has his place within the pecking order, the former go-to option is now having to figure out where he falls amid the likes of not only fellow All-Stars like Horford and Kyrie Irving, but young stars like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who flourished in Hayward’s absence a season ago. That balancing act adds another degree of difficulty to what already was going to be a long road ahead for Hayward.
To that end: Hayward, who is scoring 9.9 points per game so far this season, ranks sixth on the Celtics in scoring; since his rookie season, he’s never been outside the top three on any team he’s been on.
“It’s a transition in a lot of ways,” Stevens said. “Ultimately, there is a physical transition, there is a limited-minutes transition, there’s a playing with a new group and re-integrating into the group.
“He’s had some really good moments, as has everyone else. We just need to be more consistent amongst our group in having those good moments more and more often.”
It’s part of the reason behind Boston’s slower-than-expected start to the season. And it’s made the process of getting Hayward back to the player he was before all the more difficult for him to navigate.
“The whole thing together is just … a lot to deal with,” Hayward said.
“It’s a process,” Horford added. “With Gordon, I’ve seen some improvements from Game 1 to 10. But I think with him, people need to understand that he was out for the whole year. It’s not only him coming back from an injury and feeling good about himself, but also trying to mesh with our group that has already been established.
“That takes time. There’s just no way around that.”
Time is something Hayward, and the Celtics, still have plenty of. A thrilling comeback in Phoenix on Thursday night moved Boston to 7-4 a little more than three weeks into the regular season. While the Bucks and Toronto Raptors have put some space between themselves and Boston early on, the Celtics aren’t playing for now.
The most important goal for them to achieve over the next several months, between now and the start of the playoffs in mid-April, isn’t to get the highest seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, or to get individual accolades for their players. Instead, it is to get Hayward back to the player he once was — or, at minimum, as close to that level as Boston possibly can.
In the meantime, he’ll be going through that mental checklist, ticking off the mini-milestones as they go by. And while it won’t be quite the same as pulling off an alley-oop or completing a chase-down block, one of those milestones will be getting through Friday’s game — even if it doesn’t come with the same pregame buzz it would’ve had last season.
That’s true not only because of the delayed return caused by Hayward’s injury, but because of the successes both teams had last season without him. The blossoming of Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Tatum in Boston meant both franchises, somehow, managed to thrive without the player whose departure from one and arrival with the other was expected to have such a decisive impact.
“It’s just circumstances that happened,” Hayward said. “With me dealing with everything I had to deal with, and they’ve had a year to move on … they had a great year last year.
“I’ve got nothing but respect for the people who are on the Jazz, and what they did for me. But it’s not something that I’ve been thinking about.”
It’s hard to blame Hayward for being preoccupied. After all, he’s had more than enough to focus on beside making his return in front of what will, undoubtedly, still be a hostile crowd in Utah.
However, nothing he hears from the stands will be more difficult to handle than the thoughts running through his head on those sleepless nights last year, when runs with Tryndamere in the gaming world replaced the ones he planned on having with Irving and Horford in the basketball one.
“When I first started playing the game, he was somebody that the people who taught me how to play said, ‘Play as him, he’s pretty easy,'” Hayward said. “Then, the more and more I played him, the more I liked how he played.
“You’re the guy that could lead your team to a win, so I liked that about him.”
Now that he’s healthy, Hayward will be hoping to do the same for the Celtics.