Countdown to Celtics Camp: What is the most intriguing camp storyline?

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Countdown to Celtics Camp: What is the most intriguing camp storyline?

The Boston Celtics will huddle two weeks from today for Media Day and the unofficial start of the 2019-20 season. The next day, they’ll launch into two-a-day sessions and the start of training camp at the Auerbach Center. Basketball is just about back.

Not that it ever left. The NBA experienced maybe its wildest summer in league history as stars relocated all over the map. The late summer/early fall doldrums were filled by the FIBA World Cup and Team USA’s roster featured four of Boston’s primary rotation players, including newly signed All-Star Kemba Walker.

Still, when camp opens for the Celtics, it’ll have been nearly five months since their head-slapping 2018-19 campaign ended unceremoniously with the Milwaukee Bucks rattling off four straight wins in the conference semifinals. A lot has changed with the departures of Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Morris. The Celtics are hoping that the “Plan A” additions of Walker and Enes Kanter can help them remain competitive in a wide-open East.

But there’s no shortage of questions to be answered about this team.

So today we’re unveiling our Countdown to Camp series, a two-week march to Media Day in which some of NBC Sports Boston’s top hoops voices will join me in trying to set the table for the new season.

Today’s topic: What will be the most intriguing storyline at training camp?

This writer’s choice: How does Gordon Hayward look after a summer of working out in Boston, and what sort of expectations will emerge as he prepares for a season now two years removed from that gruesome ankle injury in Cleveland.

Maybe it’s because much of Boston’s other key players have been on an international stage for the past month while Hayward has been grinding away back home that makes Hayward’s progress so intriguing. Every time a Celtics teammate, coach, or front-office figure has talked to reporters this offseason, the conversation has always included some form of gushing about Hayward and the upcoming season.

Heck, that hype train left the station back in early June when, just a few weeks removed from Boston’s playoff exit, Danny Ainge detailed Hayward’s initial workout schedule and how he was “anticipating great things from Gordon this season.” 

Along the way, we learned Hayward was selling his San Diego residence an had spent nearly his entire summer in Boston working out with the coaches and trainers at the team’s facility. Just last week, Celtics coach Brad Stevens further elevated the Hayward intrigue level by saying that Hayward has put himself in position for a “great” season with his offseason workouts while discussing Hayward’s summer on Jeff Goodman’s podcast.

Later in this series, we’ll get into what exactly type of season Hayward might have and how his role might change now after the departure of the two All-Stars he used to share the locker room with. Boston’s roster got incredibly young this offseason and it’s clear that 29-year-olds Walker and Hayward will be in the leadership spotlight.

But the start of camp will allow us to set our expectations gauge for Hayward. He had some very encouraging moments at the end of the 2018-19 season, particularly in Boston’s first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers. Alas, his struggles against Milwaukee confirmed that he was still searching for his pre-injury consistency and it tempered expectations entering the offseason.

In a way, it feels like some have forgotten just how good Hayward was before the injury and how his all-around talents made him a top-25-caliber player in the league. Hayward might never quite get back to that level but those glimpses at the end of last season suggest he can really impact winning. 

A new-look roster, and restored confidence, might give him a chance to accentuate his talents again this season. The Celtics are loaded with wing depth and must figure out how all those versatile pieces fit together but if Hayward gets back to the player he was, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown make leaps, that would be Boston’s most direct path to being a true contender.

So if we get a glimpse of 5-on-5 work to close out one of the team’s early sessions of camp, these eyes will be directly on Hayward.

Here’s what others in our panel will be keeping an eye on:

Abby Chin: The adjustment of — and to — Kemba Walker

This covers multiple angles, not the least of which, I assume, will be an improved vibe in the locker room. There’s a big adjustment for Walker with a new team, new environment, and leaving the only NBA home he’s ever known. That can’t be understated. 

Al Horford said it took him the better part of a year to really get comfortable after he made the move from Atlanta, and that surprised him. It’s all-encompassing for every area of your life: new house, new facility, new coaching staff and trainers. Even just figuring out the best way to get to TD Garden to avoid traffic. Everything is different. 

And, of course, the adjustment on the court for Walker, and for his new teammates in playing with Walker. This is the most talented group of guys Walker has ever played alongside during an NBA season. How does he balance his 1-on-1, pick-and-roll heavy style with getting others involved? Irving never really figured that out. How effectively is Walker able to pick his spots? His teammates have to adjust to a new floor general as well. A few got a head start with Team USA but it’s still going to take time to gel.

Sherrod Blakely: The wing position

Jaylen Brown is in a contract year. Jayson Tatum will look to take a significant leap forward.  Gordon Hayward's looking to get back to the player he was prior to coming to Boston. Keeping all three happy this year? Good luck with that Brad Stevens.


Max Lederman: How will Robert Williams look?

TimeLord's per-36 stats were historic last season. Can he come close to that production with extended run? Can he be a playable rotation big for the Celtics to start the season, or will he need more time to develop? Basically I want to know if he can play — and not be a net negative — on opening night versus the Joel Embiid/Al Horford frontline of the 76ers.

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Celtics Report Card: Power Ranking the C's roster by importance

Celtics Report Card: Power Ranking the C's roster by importance

Who's been the Celtics MVP so far this season? 

It's not exactly an easy question to answer. Last week, we asked you guys to pick. Given four options — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Marcus Smart — voters were split.

Smart prevailed in the balloting with 28 percent of votes but no one earned less than 22 percent. It hammered home how Boston’s early season success has been a group effort from their core players. 

In lieu of a report card — and Inspired by last weeks’ voting — we attempted this week to try to power rank Celtics players based on their importance to the team’s success so far this season. Like the voters in our poll, we found that you could shuffle the top 5 in just about any order and make a case for your rankings.

Click here for this week's Celtics Report Card.>>>>>

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Kemba Walker 'ecstatic' about getting Gordon Hayward back in Celtics lineup

Kemba Walker 'ecstatic' about getting Gordon Hayward back in Celtics lineup

BOSTON — Count Kemba Walker among those excited to get Gordon Hayward back on the court.

"I'm excited. I'm ecstatic and happy for him,” said Walker. "He was playing really well before he got hurt and, of course, we need him. He is one of our best players. He's a starter for us and averaging 20 points. That's 20 points that we were missing. It will be great to get him back for sure.”

Hayward went through walkthrough Monday with the intention of playing Monday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to coach Brad Stevens. Hayward was conferencing with trainers after shootaround looking for the final thumbs up. 

Hayward has missed the past 13 games while rehabbing from a left-hand fracture suffered against the San Antonio Spurs in early November.

The Celtics, however, will not be at full strength on Monday even if Hayward plays. Robert Williams is out due to a sore left hip while Marcus Smart is doubtful due to an eye infection.

Walker doesn’t believe the Celtics will have any struggles reintegrating Hayward after his absence. Boston went 9-4 without him.

“Gordon is so smart and knows how to play the game, so easy to play with,” said Walker. "I don't think there will be any challenges. I think he's going to come in and do as well as he did before he got hurt.”

In other injury news, Stevens gave positive updates on Romeo Langford and Tacko Fall.

“[Langford] had a great workout this morning. Did a little bit of our shootaround so that was good, should be clear pretty soon,” Stevens said of the 14th overall pick, who has been sidelined by an ankle he sprained twice in Maine.

"Tacko is doing great,” said Stevens. "I’m guessing he’ll be cleared by the end of the week.”

Fall, a two-way big man, has been sidelined recently with a bruised knee. Once healthy, he’ll be able to rejoin the Maine Red Claws.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Cavaliers, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.