CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Tip-off was more than eight hours away when Gordon Hayward, surrounded by his Celtics teammates inside the locker room, was shooting the breeze before their morning shootaround.
Being in the bowels of the Dean Smith Center (a.k.a. the Dean Dome for those of us who covered college games on Tobacco Road) had Hayward and Al Horford reminiscing about their college days and the NCAA Tournament, the kind of random topics that teammates often find themselves chatting about prior to a game.
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Still, there’s nothing normal or typical about this preseason game against the Charlotte Hornets, the first game Hayward will be playing since suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Cleveland last Oct. 17.
Hayward is going to play tonight and his plan is about as simple as it gets.
“For me, it’s just not getting injured,” Hayward told NBC Sports Boston before knocking on the wooden panels inside his locker stall a couple times. “Coming back and just feeling healthy out there, like I’m moving well, feel like I made some plays. Just getting through the first game feeling confident in my leg.”
Having not played in an NBA game in nearly a year, Hayward anticipates there will be a few stumbles while he's on the floor tonight.
“I’m going to make mistakes,” he said. “It’s just getting out there, competing, playing hard defensively; just play really hard and compete, and try not to worry about it.”
It remains to be seen how much Hayward will play, but his minutes won’t be limited for any health-related reasons.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens anticipates none of his players will log more than 20 minutes, which isn’t all that uncommon for veteran teams that are seeking to develop chemistry and improve overall team conditioning, more so than establish playing roles, in the preseason.
And while Hayward is seen by many as another elite scoring threat for the Celtics, one of the seldom talked-about strengths of his game is the versatility with which he plays.
“To his credit, he’s a guy that can play a lot of different roles with regard to a scorer, facilitator, ball-handler, those types of things,” Stevens said. “He’ll have games this year where he’ll score the ball at a high rate. And he’ll have games where he doesn’t but he does other things that add value to winning. Just like I said, everybody has (something) that they have to bring to the table.”
Hayward is just as anxious as Celtics fans to see what he’ll be called upon to bring to the floor this season.
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“One of the ways you figure it out is just playing,” Hayward said. “Just being in the game, different situations call for doing different things. We’ll figure that out as we go.”