I don’t blame myself, but I wouldn’t be mad at you if you did.
Roughly this time last draft season, I was writing a lot of very favorable things about Killian Hayes. I thought he was the best mix of floor and ceiling in the class, ranked him over LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards on multiple big boards, and I felt personally vindicated when he ended up being the Detroit Pistons’ selection at No. 7 in the 2020 NBA Draft.
Then, the season started, and Killian struggled out of the gate, looking tentative against NBA athletes, as the fourth option, playing against guys like Steph Curry, Trae Young, and Jrue Holiday in his first few NBA moments. THEN, Killian got hurt, robbing him of the on-and-off-court development time his fellow rookies got to enjoy and blossom with.
Somewhat understandably, this led to the more ... reactionary elements of the Pistons fanbase to make some pretty concrete conclusions:
(Reddit username and twitter handle removed to protect the innocent, Byline not removed because that’s a smidge more public in my eyes)
Conclusions that, in those fans’ defense, were born our by the box score:
You cannot handwave away a slashline like that, and you shouldn’t. But like they say in golf, “There are no pictures on the scorecard.” There was plenty of reason for optimism in what we saw from Killian Hayes after he returned from injury. You just had to wade through all the rookie point guard screwups to get there.
Rookie Point Guard Screwups
The most obvious thing Killian did not do enough of during his rookie year was use his off-hand:
A critique of Killian coming into the draft (that you rarely see applied to right-handed guys who can’t use their left, I’m just saying), his overt comfort with his dominant hand made finishing around the rim much more difficult that it would’ve otherwise been. It also made defending him predictable, as teams could sit on his dominant hand and coerce him into playing more passively.
His hand dominance also contributed to his turnover problems, the second major flaw in Killian’s rookie year. It’s expected that young guards turn the ball over as they get used to the speed of the NBA game, but it didn’t make turnovers like this any easier to stomach:
Even though his per-game assist numbers versus his per-game turnovers looks ... fine, for a rookie guard, Killian’s turnover rate was too close to his assist rate for comfort. The expectation is that he clears up those issues as he progresses in his career, but it was a glaring flaw on the tape and in the box score.
Killian’s last big flaw was his inability to just ... put the ball through the hoop. The floaters that came easily in Germany eluded him. The transition opportunities he feasted on previously were fewer and farther between. There were times the longer three-point line gave him trouble. There were more games where he attempted fewer than five shots (four times) than games he made more than five shots (one). You could see him miss a few shots early and decide that the “correct” thing to do was to get other guys involved.
To bring back a piece of Dwane Casey parlance, it felt like Killian needed to “Giddyup” more than he needed to “Whooahh.”
In addition to resolving the big things, he has to execute on the little ones. Knowing that this is the NBA, leaning into defenders while driving gets you foul calls instead of whacked. Knowing that guys in the NBA will pull from 28 feet and he can’t hedge like he could in Germany. Knowing that you can’t throw Jahlil Okafor that lob because he’s Jahlil Okafor. Small things add up on the margins, and will help Killian be effective until he’s resolved the larger issues in his game.
Reasons for Optimism
The flashes. Oh baby, those flashes of offensive brilliance from Killian are something to behold. Part of the reason it’s impossible to call him a bust at this juncture is you can’t watch some of these passes and some of these shots and think “Oh yeah this dude will not be able to play NBA basketball.”
Teams sat on his left hand, but it doesn’t matter that you sit on Killian’s dominant hand if he knows that you know you’re sitting on his dominant hand:
Killian’s court vision was as good as advertised. Defenders might be longer and faster in the NBA, but when he held defenders with his eyes like a QB keeping a safety on one side of the field, that mattered a lot less:
He CAN make these step-back off the dribble jumpers. He didn’t do it often, but he did do it:
The self-efficacy to make these latter plays is part of the reason why the hesitancy from Killian was so frustrating. If you can make THOSE plays, you can ball. So go out there and ball, young man.
This upcoming summer and regular season should be really good for Killian. He’s been training with the rest of the guys in Detroit, building a rapport with guys he’ll hopefully be playing alongside for a while. He gets the benefit of as much Las Vegas Summer League as the Pistons will let him play. He gets a longer, less Covid-y training camp. And, hopefully, most importantly, he gets a full 82 game season to explore what he’s capable of in the NBA.
Should He Stay or Should He Go?