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.
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