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Killian Hayes’ time is now ... or never

Killian Hayes might be just 21 years old, but his Pistons’ future is already at risk unless he can improve his shooting

Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Through two injury-marred NBA season, Killian Hayes has shown himself to be a plus defender with quality court vision and the ability to find teammates for open looks. He’s also proven to be one of the most ineffective shooters in the NBA. For the former to matter, the latter needs to improve by quite a bit.

You should never write off a young prospect in the NBA with the size, strength and gifts of Hayes, and while he’s entering his third season, he has only played 2,300 minutes. Especially if you’re a team in the early stages of a “restoration” as the Detroit Pistons find themselves. There is not nearly enough information to make definitive decisions about his future.

But the sad reality is, Hayes is on borrowed time in Detroit, and he has this season to cement his status as any part of the Pistons’ future. After taking the point guard seventh overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, the Pistons have subsequently drafted a new lead ball handler in Cade Cunningham, and a player slotted to play alongside Cade in Detroit’s back court of the future in Jaden Ivey.

Where does that leave Hayes? Right now, he is the backup point guard. Truthfully, he could excel in that role and become indispensable in Detroit’s rotation. However, that does require some serious improvement in one or more key areas — he must become a better catch-and-shoot option, he must be able to finish better inside, and he must be able to draw an occasional foul. The absence of all three of those have resulted in a true shooting percentage of 44.9% for Hayes. That is the fourth-worst mark in the first two seasons of a career (minimum, 1,000 minutes played). Simply put, that’s not going to cut it.

But Hayes did rework his 3-point shot this offseason, reportedly working with a variety of coaches on cleaning up his footwork and his form. If he can turn that stroke into something even remotely accepting passable, it completely changes his NBA future. If he can’t, then he won’t have much of an NBA future.

In the preseason, Hayes knocked down 33% of his 3s, which represents progress for the career 26% distance shooter. It’s not where it needs to be, but the shot looks better, he did it at high volume (5 attempts per game), and looked all around more aggressive and in attack mode in the warm up to the season. A hint at his aggressive nature — he tripled his free-throw average from a paltry one trip per game to three. Again, baby steps, but a sign of progress.

Now, though, the games will count. And while the Pistons are still in the mode of a bias toward giving minutes to young players and letting them figure it out on the floor, there is no telling how short of a leash Hayes will have if his shot doesn’t start falling at the 36% range pretty soon.

It could be awfully tempting for Dwane Casey to turn to veterans Cory Joseph or Rodney McGruder as the Pistons inevitably struggle throughout the season. Hayes is also surely the most likely to see his minutes cut in favor of some veteran consistency on the floor.

Detroit Pistons v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Know Your Role, Killian Hayes

The Pistons are still likely to be a poor defensive team, and that is where Hayes can hang his hat most immediately. There is no better perimeter option to hound players at the top of the key than Hayes. He’s got length, good lateral movement and very good defensive instincts.

He’s also a great option to run the show off the bench, but his overall effectiveness will be highly dependent on his shot making him at all a scoring threat and what players Casey decides to slot alongside him. Hayes would be most effective in a running lineup featuring healthy doses of rookie Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren. But for now Ivey is slotted into the starting lineup, and if Stewart and the Pistons struggle because of a lack of length and verticality on both ends, Duren could find himself in the starting lineup before too long as well.

That would mean that Hayes has some capable veteran shooters to play off of in Alec Burks, Joseph and a decent helping of Bojan Bogdanovic. However, if Hayes can’t threaten at the point of attack, it’s hard to say the defense would have any reason to leave their defensive assignments and that would mean few open looks.

The key point, though, is that as the talent level has increased in Detroit, despite its youth, there are now skills on the floor that Hayes doesn’t need to try to pretend to possess. Ivey is an elite athlete, and so he can be cutting to the rim and finishing dunks. Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Livers are capable 3-point shooters with some veteran reinforcements, so Hayes doesn’t have to be the best secondary perimeter option on the floor.

It’s sort of amazing how good of a point guard Hayes has been able to be considering his absolutely lack of threatening the defense on his own. He is averaging more than 4 assists per game, and when you watch him on the floor, it’s obvious how adept he is at exploiting small openings to get the ball to his teammates. His assist numbers would be even higher if any of his teammates could hit an open shot. The Pistons ranked fourth in wide-open 3s but shot just 35.5%, which ranked second to last.

Hayes will need to be better to help his teammates continue to get those quality looks, and better 3-point shooters will help boost the team’s overall threat level from distance, which should help open up lanes to the rim for Hayes.

Will all of this work out into a more effective Hayes in season number three? It all feels like a bit of a house of cards. If the shot is better, and Hayes can either exploit the transition opportunities with rookies or the 3-point threat of the veterans, Hayes can look more like the player the Pistons were hoping for when he was the first draft pick of Troy Weaver’s tenure. Then he can be an integral part of Detroit’s rotation, including closing games in three-guard lineups, and have a long, fruitful career as a quality back-up point guard.

If that house of cards should tumble, then Hayes could easily be moved at the deadline as it would seem unlikely Detroit or Hayes would have much of an interest in a future beyond this season.

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