INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- The biggest question surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers heading into training camp was in regard to how healthy they would be. And now that camp has opened, the bulk of the attention paid to the Cleveland players on the mend has gone to Kyrie Irving’s left knee, Kevin Love’s left shoulder and, most recently, Iman Shumpert’s right wrist.
The circumstances have allowed Anderson Varejao -- perhaps the most conspicuous player on the roster, at 6-11, 267 pounds with a mushroom cloud of curly hair -- to fly under the radar.
Just like Irving and Love, Varejao suffered a season-ending injury, which precluded him from performing in the Finals. Varejao was the first of the group to go down, suffering a torn Achilles tendon in December and missing the rest of the regular season plus the playoffs as result.
But unlike Irving, who has been limited to individual drills this week, and Love, who has yet to be cleared for full-contact practices, Varejao has stormed through the first several days of training camp unencumbered.
“He really surprised me,” Cavs coach David Blatt said Thursday. “Both yesterday and today he’s moving well, his conditioning is much further along than I thought it would be at this stage. He’s active. He’s still searching for his rhythm and his normal flow in the game because he hasn’t played for so long. But [I’m] pleasantly surprised, really surprised, and in a good way.”
Even though Achilles surgery generally includes a six- to nine-month recovery timeline and it’s already been more than nine months since Varejao went under the knife, the big man still even stunned himself a bit with the way he’s approached camp so far.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Varejao said Thursday. “I was kind of surprised after yesterday. We had two practices yesterday [and] I felt really good doing contact and everything. I’m very happy about it.”
Before he could get his body to cooperate, Varejao first had to put his mind at ease. He consulted with former Finals MVP and current ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups, as well as Boston Celtics forward Jonas Jerebko, both of whom had recovered from torn Achilles in the past, to see how they got through it.
“Jerebko, he came to me and he told me, ‘Once you start playing again, you won’t feel anything, so just hang in there and keep working,’” Varejao recalled.
Varejao worked so hard that he was back on the court getting shots up by the time the Cavs were in the postseason. He looked so good that the team considered suiting him up as injuries mounted, according to sources, but decided against it to avoid putting Varejao’s future career at risk. The hard work continued in his native Brazil, where he spent a good portion of the summer concentrating on his conditioning so he could be ready for camp.
Still, having just turned 33 years old this week, he’s not as spry as he once was. Accounting for the Achilles only adds to the challenge of playing the up-and-down game of the NBA.
“I’m just going to have to take baby steps, little by little, to get back into the game,” Varejao said. “My rhythm and everything. But I’m basically doing everything. I don’t know if I’m doing it as fast as I used to. But I’m basically doing everything right now.”
What he most likely won’t be doing, however, is starting at center when the season opens up. Varejao won the spot over Tristan Thompson in training camp last season and performed quite well before his injury -- averaging 9.8 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 55.5 percent from the field -- but that was prior to Cleveland acquiring Timofey Mozgov, their 7-1 behemoth who was dominant at times in the Cavs’ playoff run.
Add Mozgov to the list of Cavs players dealing with injuries, though. He underwent minor surgery on both of his knees in the offseason and Blatt estimated he is only “60 percent” in shape on Thursday. Thompson isn’t in camp yet because of a contract dispute and Love’s shoulder still needs time to get back to 100 percent. New signee Sasha Kaun, another pivot man, has been one of the standout performers on the court through the first couple of days of camp. But he still has a learning curve to get over as a fresh face to the system.
So even if Varejao isn’t a starter, there still should be a role for him in the rotation as the rest of Cleveland’s bigs round into shape.
“I want to stay healthy,” Varejao said. “I just want to stay healthy and be important for the team, of course. It doesn’t matter if I start or not. With the team we have, there will be nights that I play more and there will be nights that Timofey and Tristan coming back or K-Love and Sasha, it just doesn’t really matter. I just want to stay healthy.”
Added Blatt: “We’re just getting started. Remember now we have more big men starting camp than we did last year, which is a good thing. Guys are working hard fighting for their position and seeing where they fit in. ... It’s good to have more than less at this stage, let’s put it that way.”