The first time I ever saw Killian Hayes, he was in a video shooting the shit with then-league-competitor-now-Detroit-Piston Sekou Doumbouya:
First, I marveled at how, uh, vocal Sekou was - the quiet teenager I saw in available media stateside was funny and, dare I say, cocky. Then, I wondered who this kid in the glasses was next to him, with the more quiet confidence. I don’t watch any European leagues/games, I got no clue.
A quick stop at Tankathon later, I was intrigued by Hayes. As the draft became a more and more relevant part of Pistons analysis, I found myself more and more interested in the possibility of Pistons taking French teenagers in back-to-back drafts, kicking off a French Revolution in the city of Détroit.
But why Killian Hayes? What so special about him? Well, let’s get into it.
What’s to Like:
Killian Hayes has great size for a point guard - he’s 6’5 with at least a 6’7.5 wingspan (we’re not going to get combine numbers this year, sadly) and 215 pounds. That height gives him the ability to see over defenses, and he uses his length to interrupt passing lanes and hedge as a team defender:
Killian Hayes defensive highlights vs. Ludwigsburg. Deters drives and cutters off-ball with stunts, slides well and forces tough shots on, effort recovering after ball screens, consistent rotations, and some playmaking with anticipation and length pic.twitter.com/LSx16mbR2x— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) April 14, 2020
And although he’s often knocked for his athleticism, Hayes is a functional basketball athlete. Is he going to compete in a dunk contest? Absolutely not. Can he get all the way to the rim in pick-and-roll situations in the halfcourt? Yes. Can he finish in transition? Yes (see above). Can he stay with his man on defense? Yes (see above).
On a per-game basis, Hayes put up 11.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.5 steals, and 3.2 turnovers, slashing 48/29/87 in 25 minutes a night (second on the team in minutes per game) over 33 games in EuroCup and German Basketball Bundesliga. Hayes can score at all three levels - at the rim, in the midrange, and from three - and has great touch, which shows itself on floaters and on midrange pullups:
These floaters is where he most closely resembles his natural NBA comparison - D’Angelo Russell.
He’s already good at taking contact and attempting a finish (being 216 pounds helps in that department). The touch he shows on midrange shots and floaters, alongside shooting in excess of 87% from the free-throw line, leads me to believe he’ll be a fine three-point shooter despite shooting 29% this season. He does a good job creating separation - laterally and backwards, meaning side-steps and step-backs, not driving past guys before they blink - but creating space still leaves you with open shots:
This ability to create space leads me to believe he’ll become a serviceable pullup/hang dribble three-point shooter. Sometimes, you know, he’s just ‘feelin it:
However, Hayes’ best ability is his passing ability. He’s an elite passer, and his passing stands out the most when you watch him:
Killian Hayes sharp change of direction and sweet live dribble skip pass pic.twitter.com/OKQSuF7ybD— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 3, 2020
Off-the-dribble, he loves these left-handed (his dominant hand) passes to shooters:
Killian Hayes' court vision is pretty superb. Two dudes in his grill and rifles this skip pass to the corner pic.twitter.com/wDDLRbhRX5— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 4, 2020
These skip passes give help defenders nightmares:
He watches how defenses shift and throws accurate, timely passes to teammates - making it easier for those guys to covert:
Killian Hayes drives, surveys the floor and turns to fire a bullet to the top of the key. Great court awareness as a passer pic.twitter.com/xZswrNWQzH— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) April 3, 2020
You know all those lob passes Derrick Rose didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t throw out of the PNR? Killian has those in his bag:
Somewhere, Christian Wood is smiling.
Accordingly, instead of the threat of a scoring ability opening up passing lanes (Reggie Jackson’s modus operandi), for Hayes, the threat of his passing ability should pry open enough driving lanes for him to be fine as a scorer. You could kinda see this as the year went on in the German BBL - there were teams that defended Hayes by staying home on shooters, sagging off him to clog the lanes, and trying to force him right (you could really see Brose Bamburg in the second half of their game sitting on his left and trying to force him right). And Hayes, despite his pass-first inclination, was able to get into the paint and make those teams pay:
Last, but not least, Killian is YOUNG. He’ll be 19 when the season starts (assuming we start the 2020-21 NBA season sometime in 2020). He’s younger than baby-faced RJ Hampton, younger than Kira “I played my freshman season at Alabama at 17” Lewis, and less than a month older than LaMelo Ball. Despite the polish he already displays, there’s still a lot of room for him to develop and grow as a player.
What’s Not To Like
The first statistical knock on Killian is his turnovers - three turnovers in 25 minutes per game is not great, 18-year-old or not. Early in the year, he made some truly head-scratching plays:
In his first 12 games, Killian averaged a BIG YIKES 4.41 turnovers a game, culminating in an eight (!) turnover game against ALBA Berlin in November, after which he was presumably told to cut the shit. In his final 21 games, Killian averaged 2.8 turnovers a game, which is not “low,” but does represent a big reduction on his part. He needs to continue to make strides taking care of the ball - defenders will react more quickly at the NBA level.
The other big weakness for Killian shows up on tape more than in the stats - he works primarily with his dominant hand. Pistons fans will recall how Brandon Jennings couldn’t do anything with his right hand (or, more recently, how Stanley Johnson couldn’t do anything with his left), and Killian is very reminiscent of that. This fed into his turnover issues - there were passes he couldn’t make in time or at all because he tried to pass everything with his left. You could see play designs drawn up to get him going to his left. As mentioned earlier, teams tried to force him to dribble right:
(Notice both the play design to give him space to his left AND the opposition overplaying him left.)
And Hayes will have to break his habit of killing his dribble instead of using his right, as Mike Schmitz of ESPN pointed out in his film interview with Hayes:
(That whole film breakdown can be found here, and all of Schmitz’s in-person or remote film breakdowns are required viewing for Pistons fans curious about the top prospects. It also gave us this hilarious moment.)
Lastly, the inconsistency from downtown concerns me a little bit with Hayes. Again, the indicators - free-throw percentage, touch around the rim and in the midrange - are good, but you would like to see him shoot better than 29% from three on the year, and that 29% was in line with the three-point numbers he put up in 2018-19 for Cholet. Shooting 39% from three in Eurocup and 22% from three in the BBL points to further inconsistency. And, on tape, he’s not always consistent with his shot prep the further out he is - sometimes he shoots off the hop, sometimes it’s off the 1-2, sometimes it’s just off one foot. It’s not as noticeable as it is with other prospects in this class, but it will need correction.
The shooting never coming along would lessen a lot of what makes him special. Without the threat of the shot, defenses could lay off of him, turning him even more into a pass-first operator. There are players who have made it work - Spencer Dinwiddie, with his career three-point percentage of 31.8%, tips his cap - but few modern NBA stars who have. (Yes, I know Luka is shooting 32% from three for his career. No, I will not compare Hayes to Luka, even in terms of weaknesses.)
Why are you in on him?
I have a really hard time imagining Hayes isn’t at least a useful NBA player, and I have a really easy time imagining that he can be much, much more. But, in discussions about Hayes, people keep getting stuck on that first part. So, let me be clear: Hayes has the potential to be one of the most complete offensive guards in the league. Not “in this class,” IN THE LEAGUE. A pass-first point guard with elite court vision, who is ALSO a three-level scorer, who is ALSO 6’5, who is ALSO not terrible defensively? That’s an All-NBA player.
Hayes has elite positional size (not a lot of 6’5 true point guards in the NBA). He has a pre-packaged elite skill - his passing. He improved statistically year-over-year and in-season (see: the decline in turnovers) in Europe - growth that wasn’t a given, since the level of competition he faced also improved - and there’s little reason to believe that his growth won’t continue in the NBA given his age.
And, despite his pro-readiness, he is not a finished product. The turnovers will continue to lessen, he’ll work on his playmaking and finishing with his non-dominant hand, he’ll improve as a shooter. You look at his body, and although he has a strong core, there are strength improvements he can make in his lower half - there’s untapped athletic potential there. By all accounts, he’s the type of player willing to work and make improvements.
As for why he’d be good in Detroit, that’s even easier. For the last few years, Pistons fans have been used to point guards who are score-first guys - Brandon Jennings, Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith (to a lesser extent), Derrick Rose. Having a point guard who looks to get others involved as much as Hayes does would be a nice change of pace - and, in my opinion, is more conducive to the development of the other young players on Detroit’s roster (and any future young players they acquire in the draft). Watching Derrick Rose up close for 50-ish games has made me more cognizant of the importance and value of a point guard who does point-guardy-things for a team.
The scout on Hayes reminds me of another 6’5 19-year-old:
(He) doesn’t possess a very long wingspan (6-6) or incredible explosiveness. He’s a fluid athlete who moves well and has decent quickness, but isn’t the type of prospect who will be jumping over or dominating other players physically... In the rare cases that he does get inside the paint, he is not a great finisher, due to his average explosiveness and the lack of extension he gets around the rim due to his poor wingspan. He relies heavily on pull-up jumpers and floaters once he puts the ball on the floor, which are not the most high percentage looks in the NBA... While (he) may not possess superstar potential, he also comes with very little risk, as it will be very very surprising if he doesn’t end up developing into at least a solid NBA player.
That’s Devin Booker, another 6’5 son of a guy who played a lot of basketball in Europe, who proved to be a high-ceiling, high-floor draft selection.
Ultimately, it comes down to something my friend Alex Kungu said on Twitter:
Believe in prospects who know how to play basketball.— A.K (@Kungu_NBA) April 29, 2020
Hayes knows how to play basketball. Other prospects know how to score, or drive, or pass. Hayes KNOWS HOW TO PLAY BASKETBALL.
Stop overthinking it. Killian Hayes is going to be an elite NBA player.