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Celtics newcomer Gordon Hayward ready for that huge spotlight

September 27, 2017 GMT

NEWPORT, RI — There was a small, adoring crowd outside this weathered, brown-shingled fieldhouse on the Salve Regina campus yesterday.

Gordon Hayward will start thinking that Celtics fans never stop cheering and shaking hands. After all, his last game in the Garden was Jan. 3. Much to the chagrin of the player guarding him, Jae Crowder, the crowd boisterously cheered the then-Jazz forward and future free agent target. Hayward and Crowder had the same question, for very different reasons.

Really?

“It was interesting and definitely made me smile at the beginning of the game,” Hayward said yesterday after his first day of practice with the Celts. “But when you guys came out and took it to us in the first quarter, all of that went away. Me, I’m thinking about the game, trying to win. Didn’t think about it after that.”

Hayward, in his own words, has been an “under-the-radar” athlete since he gave up tennis for basketball in high school. There’s a pattern. He slips into town quietly, be it at Butler or in Salt Lake City, keeps his mind on the game and leaves a decorated star.

But last January’s odd outpouring didn’t feel out of place to Hayward, either.

“I wasn’t uncomfortable because I didn’t view it as much,” he said. “It might have been a bigger deal here, but for me, it wasn’t a deal at all. Oh, they cheered for me. That was kind of weird. But then it was about moving on.”

Except that he’s here for good now on a four-year, $128 million contract that has increased the glare. Boston will become the biggest market Hayward has performed in.

“It is different, and that’s something that’s different for me because I’ve flown under the radar since I’ve been in high school,” he said. “I don’t mind it like that. Going into making this decision, we talked about how there’s going to be more of a spotlight. I usually don’t worry about it and think about what can I do to make myself better. What can I do to help the team, and all of the other stuff will take care of itself.

“Just going out and playing and not worrying about the outside circumstances. All that stuff goes away when you get out on the basketball court and you’re just competing and playing. Try not to worry about all of that outside stuff. I knew a bigger market was going to mean a bigger spotlight. That comes with it, but as a basketball player, you want to be playing in the biggest moments on the biggest stage, and when you finally get out on that stage, it’s just basketball.”

It will help that Hayward’s game is so unselfish and seamless. Kyrie Irving knows what’s coming.

“Gordon, of course, he’s himself,” the Celtics guard said. “He’s going to run the floor, be aggressive, play defense, offensive rebound, attack the defensive glass, and do everything out there on the floor.”

That’s why, according to coach Brad Stevens, there’s no concern about blending Hayward into this new mix.

“I think what Gordon brings to the table from a versatility standpoint and from the way he plays the game, he can pretty much mesh with anyone, anytime, anywhere,” Stevens said. “That’s a really good quality to have obviously. I thought when Al (Horford) got here last year, he enhanced everyone’s games around him because of the way that he played. You can kind of see some of that with Gordon as well.”

There’s not a lot of time to mesh, though. The Celtics open their exhibition season Monday in the Garden against Charlotte. And then the stakes begin rising again for Hayward.

But as evidenced by those fans at Salve Regina yesterday, training camp can be very much like a honeymoon.

“That was new for me. I haven’t been a part of something like that,” Hayward said of the reception. “So it’ll be fun for sure. And walking out into the Garden for the first time is going to be a special experience for me, and something that when I made the decision that’s kind of how I thought that would be like. And I’m looking forward to it.”