Contrary to what you may believe, Killian Hayes’ story is far from finished. It was a rough debut for the No. 7 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Coming to the Detroit Pistons from Germany, Hayes joined the fray without the typical rookie offseason. The pandemic wiped out the Las Vegas Summer League and preseason camp was abbreviated.
There wasn’t time to get acclimated to the NBA. There wasn’t time to get to know his new teammates and coaches. Hell, there wasn’t even a way to get acclimated to his new home in Detroit.
Hayes’ rookie year was baptism by fire mixed with being thrown in the deep end.
But when GM Troy Weaver chose him, the organization thought they had found their Point Guard of the Future™ — a guy with great size and an elite feel for the game who lacked natural athleticism and high-level scoring ability.
All of that — the good and the bad — showed itself to be true last year.
Before an early season hip injury, Hayes was the worst player in the league. Through seven games, he averaged just 4.6 points and 3.6 assists per game on pathetic .277/.250/.500 shooting in 20 minutes a night.
It was like watching a kid freshly called up from the JV trying to play with the varsity team.
However, Hayes’ play improved after returning late in the season. We saw the playmaking chops (10.1 assists per 100 possessions) that made him so appealing... and the struggles (a .422 TS% and 6.1 turnovers per 100 possessions) that worried many.
But he was provided an opportunity to show what he could do — and that was important.
Even the high points were negligible on the team’s success as the losses piled up to end the season. Luckily, it landed the Pistons the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Fast forward to August and, while most eyeballs were on Cade Cunningham as the Pistons hit the floor at the Las Vegas Summer League, we wanted to see more out of Hayes.
And, for the most part, he struggled, looking like a rookie among rookies.
He did a bit of everything in averaging 6.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game, but the turnovers and inability to score were glaring. Even his defensive improvements, while the lone bright spot, were hard to buy into considering the competition.
Now, we approach a pivotal season for Hayes. Can he fit with Cunningham? Can he show improvement this season? Is he an NBA player?
We’re about to find out.
Know Your Role
Maybe we’ve been thinking about Hayes all wrong.
I’ve seen analysts compare Hayes to two players: D’Angelo Russell and Goran Dragic. Both are smooth-scoring point guards who aren’t overly athletic but let’s be honest, the main similarities between Killian and those two are the fact that they’re all lefties.
I’m not sure there’s a likely outcome where Hayes develops the scoring aptitude of Russell or the crafty finishing ability of Dragic. He’s just a different player, and we should view him as such.
I saw a lot of similarities between Hayes and Ricky Rubio last season.
Both have an innate passing ability while sharing the same inability to finish at the rim and score effectively. Rubio has been around for a decade and has improved as a shooter — though he’s still regarded more for his value as a creator and defender.
Hayes, who entered the league at 19 compared to Rubio at 21, could face a similar climb. I don’t think French Ricky Rubio is that bad of an outcome if it ends up that way.
But here’s another comparison that I think would be better: Marcus Smart.
Smart just so happens to be one of my favorite “what if” players for the Pistons.
Had Joe Dumars not desperately unloaded Ben Gordon’s contract by saddling a future first-round pick to him in 2012, Smart could have been a Piston. That pick eventually ended up in Boston, where the Celtics drafted Smart No. 6 in 2014.
But if there’s one area where you feel confident in Killian, it’s defense. He’s got the size, bulking up since the end of last season, and most of the news on him this offseason has focused on his defense—for better or worse.
Despite his struggles, he looked great defensively in Vegas:
Smart might be the best on-ball defender in the NBA, or at least the most disruptive. If Hayes reaches that level, he’s going to be just fine. But where the comparison hits home for me is the other end of the floor.
Smart, throughout his career, has also been an atrocious shooter. He can’t make ‘em but keeps shooting ‘em anyway. Smart shot just 36% from the field and 29% from downtown over his first four seasons in the league.
Yet he evolved into one of the most important players on the Boston Celtics. This brings us to a great 2017 article from Mike Prada: Marcus Smart is a terrible shooter who’s somehow essential to the Celtics’ offense. It’s a great read and it opened my eyes to the idea that Killian, with alllllll his offensive warts and immense defensive potential, has more in common with Smart than Rubio, D-Lo or Dragic.
Here’s a snippet:
When Smart is in the game, the Celtics score at a rate of 109.3 points per 100 possessions. When he is not in the game, Boston scores an average of 101.1 points per 100 possessions.
Most of that difference is made up in the Celtics’ shooting. Boston attempts better shots when Smart is in the game and makes those shots more often. Sixty-three percent of its buckets are assisted with Smart in compared to less than 57 percent with him out. The Celtics’ effective field goal percentage as a team rises to 53 percent with Smart in and drops to 50.3 percent with him out. They shoot a higher percentage of their shots from three-point range and convert restricted area attempts at a clip 8 percent higher than with Smart out of the game.
How can these two factual statements both be true? Because opponents treat Marcus Smart like the player he pretends to be, not the one he actually is.
The moral of the story is Marcus Smart carries himself like a legitimate NBA scorer — and opposing teams defend him as such. The sheer threat of him shooting from deep is enough to give him room to manipulate the defense and use his good-not-great skills as a playmaker to find opportunities for teammates.
Forget imposter syndrome. Just keep faking it until you make it.
Killian probably won’t be a passable 3-point shooter this season, but it won’t matter as much if he still makes himself a threat to score. As long as he shows that he’s willing to shoot anything, teams are going to defend him as such. By chasing him off the line or rotating to take that look away, Killian going to have chances to make them pay because he’s a better playmaker than Smart.
Combine that with better floor spacing from newcomers like Cunningham and Kelly Olynyk and there’s a chance we see a version of Killian that looks a lot like Smart — one worse at converting at the rim but better at punishing defenses as a creator off their closeouts.
Sure, it’s not what any of us expected when Hayes was drafted, but, in the end, all that matters is that he finds his role and excels.
Killian being the Marcus Smart to Cade as Jayson Tatum is a nice start.