As the buzzer sounded at Little Ceasers Arena on Nov. 7, the Detroit Pistons’ backcourt of the future, Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, celebrated a 16-point comeback victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Piston fans were enamored by the performances of their budding stars with Cunningham and Ivey combining for 36 points, 22 rebounds and 13 assists.
Lost in the shuffle, as often happens, was Killian Hayes. His tenure as part of the backcourt of the future had seemingly long since passed, and his place as a part of the backcourt at all was very much in question. On this night, though, Hayes delivered his best performance of the season so far. In a little over 17 minutes of action, Hayes equalled a season-high 5 points and dished out 4 assists. That might not seem like much, but Hayes’ struggles have been so pronounced that it was a step forward.
“Everyone was down on Killian Hayes and I thought he came out and competed...its growth,” noted head coach Dwane Casey after the game.
Eleven games into his third season, and a five-point performance was a sign of “growth” for Killian. That’s how low it had gotten for the once-heralded prospect out of France who many were extremely high on coming out of the draft (though he certainly also had his detractors).
His 2.9 point average on 20% shooting during this stretch had even the Frenchman’s greatest believers thinking he was on the verge of busting out of the league.
It sounded at the time like Casey was damning Killian with faint praise, but maybe Casey saw something not just on the floor but in Hayes’ workouts, practices and all-around demeanor.
In the ensuing game verses the Boston Celtics on Nov. 9, with nowhere to go but up, Hayes appeared to flip a switch mentally. Hayes had heard all the haters, and been the subject of all the memes. It was time to go into all-out attack mode. He dazzled his way to a new season-high scoring 16 points on a heavy diet of pull-up jumpers that found the bottom of the net.
That didn’t silence his critics, of course. And for good reason. He had pulled out the random decent game in the past only to regress back into the light-scoring, overly deferential player he’d been for most of his previous two seasons in Detroit. This could be just another “flash-in-the-pan” performance.
Only now, looking back, can we say this game really signified something. It was the start of an encouraging 10-game stretch for Hayes. A stretch that he capped with a near triple-double performance against the Western Conference leading Phoenix Suns last Friday night.
During the aforementioned 10-game span, Hayes is averaging 10.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists. Those aren’t Trae Young type numbers of course, but he was never supposed to be Young. He only needs a level of offense that allows him to deploy his superior passing game. His offense only needs to be good enough to keep him on the floor and allow him to be the best defender on the perimeter.
That game against Boston was also the last one before Cade Cunningham went down with a shin injury, and Detroit’s lead ball handler has missed the subsequent eight games. That is terrible for Detroit, but it has given Hayes an opening to sustain a high level of play and keep the ball in his hands.
He’s playing with a renewed sense of clarity, and a new level of responsibility. The indecisive version of Hayes hasn’t shown his face since Cunningham went down. Hence, I wanted to highlight a few key improvements the young guard has made to his game during this November stretch.
Developing a go-to move
Throughout the draft process, Hayes was heralded as a jumbo playmaker capable of finishing over opponents with a trusty lefty floater. With a shaky jumper and lack of burst to finish at the rim, the float from that 8-14-foot range was meant to be Hayes’ ticket to baskets early in his career. Even without a reliable outside stroke, his craftiness inside the arc would draw enough attention from a defense for Hayes to flex his superior playmaking skills.
Hayes made it to the NBA, but the floater never arrived. Must have left its passport back in France.
This was a big contributor to short-circuiting Hayes’ offense. He quickly became one of the least efficient offensive players in the NBA. And up until Nov. 9, it appeared Hayes was still yet to find a go-to scoring move.
Suddenly, though, Hayes’ has been able to dig the silky pull-up jumper out of his bag. Since his 16-point display against the Celtics, Hayes has been shooting a respectable 43.2% on pull-up jumpers inside the arc, per NBA.com.
The young guard has done an excellent job in creating space once driving towards his preferred left on pick-and-roll possessions. When pulling up to shoot, even though his legs still have a tendency to flail, the motion has more fluidity from start to finish compared to earlier in his career.
During his past 10 outings, Hayes’ improved shooting off the bounce is best highlighted by his near 45% (44.8) two-point shooting off 7+ dribbles, per NBA.com. For context, dribble-shooting maestro’s Darius Garland and the aforementioned Young are converting on 42% of their two-point attempts via 7+ dribbles.
While the sample size is still relatively small, it’s beginning to feel like Hayes finally has himself a go-to move on offense. An area on the court he can look to when trying to find a rhythm.
Applying an attacking mindset
The statistical numbers for Hayes have been historically poor throughout his professional tenure. There’s no denying that he’s been amongst the league’s most inefficient creators of offense.
For Piston fans, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the young ball handler’s approach has been his lack of aggression. In the past, an 0-for-3 start often leads Hayes to fade into the background.
Through his first 11 games, not only did Hayes shoot an atrocious 20% from the floor (16.7 3P%), but he hoisted five or fewer shots in more than half of his games. In a make or break year, Hayes was letting missing take him out of the game.
However, since flipping the switch mentally in Boston, the lefty guard has doubled his shot attempts, firing off a shade-under 11 (10.7) per game. While some of this has come from taking on a larger offensive load, the story on Hayes’ drives to the basket has changed dramatically:
Driving to score
|First 11 games
|Last 10 games
|First 11 games
|Last 10 games
|Drives per game
|FG% on drives
|Points off drives
|Pass % off drives
The most interesting stat to note is the reduction in the 21-year-old’s passes off drives. In his first 11 games, a tentative Killian was constantly deferring to teammates, with over half (54.8%) of his drives resulting in a pass.
Since Nov. 9, the attacking version of Hayes has placed a noticeable emphasis on scoring the basketball, passing on 43.2% of his drives. The 10% reduction in passing rate is a reflection of Hayes’ previously highlighted intent on getting to his 15-foot pull-up jumper.
The next step for Hayes is improving his finishing at the rim. While the dribble jumpers off of drives are a nice addition, a league-average conversion rate around the basket would turn Hayes from an offensive black hole into a bonafide efficient scorer.
Capitalizing on the ‘easy’ stuff
Following a pair of seasons were he shot a combined 26.8% from three, Hayes spent the past summer working on his jump shot mechanics. The form was noticeably different. The results less so.
While the internet freaked out over the new release, ultimately all that mattered was whether the tweaks resulted in higher percentages.
To begin the season the results were astronomically bad as Hayes was converting only 16.7% (!!) of his 1.6 outside looks per game. Most of which were catch-and-shoot attempts (1.0 FGA).
Once again though, like his pull-up jumper, the southpaw seems to have found a comfort level with his adjusted stroke. Across Detroit’s past 10 outings, Hayes’ is connecting on 40% of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts, and is shooting 36.4% overall from deep.
Though it will take more than a 10-game sample for NBA defenses to scheme for Hayes’ outside shot, the newfound efficiency from three increases his value to the team and around the NBA. A defensively stout 6-foot-5 playmaking guard with a respectable outside jumper is the perfect complementary piece to any NBA guard rotation.
For Detroit, a shooting-proficient version of Hayes enables Casey to effectively deploy his preferred three-guard lineups. Even in traditional two-guard lineups, Hayes will have ample opportunity to feat on open three-point looks via Cunningham (when healthy) and Ivey drives to the basket. A Hayes that can cash in on “easy” baskets is an extremely valuable player.
There is certainly a long way to go for Hayes. A 10-game sample is something, but it’s not everything. Considering the first time in his 113 games career, the past two weeks of play feels like real progression for the former lottery pick. Hayes was likely never a player destined for the spotlight. That’s OK. The players you get with the seventh overall selection rarely are. But the light was on Hayes all the same — a light that felt more like harsh judgement and intense scrutiny. Hayes couldn’t stand that light either. He was wilting away before our eyes.
But then the switch flipped. And that game on Nov. 9 might not just the beginning of a nice little 10-game stretch of ball for the point guard. Instead, we might look back as that being the moment he truly turned his season, and his career, around.