Niyo: Pistons make a point giving rookie Killian Hayes room to grow

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

All these years later, Derrick Rose won’t cop to any humbling moments as a rookie point guard in the NBA.

“Nah, I didn’t have that,” the Pistons’ veteran laughed Tuesday, on the eve of his 13th season in the league. “I wasn’t going for that.”

But whether that’s a case of selective memory or simply a unique talent — the No. 1 overall draft pick in Chicago was a runaway Rookie of the Year winner and then the league MVP in his third season — the same expectations won’t apply to the 19-year-old point guard Rose is busy tutoring now.

Killian Hayes is the Pistons’ highest draft pick in a decade and only their third top-10 selection at his position since a guy named Isiah Thomas came long nearly 40 years ago. (Brandon Knight in 2011 and Lindsey Hunter in 1993 were the others.) He’s also arguably the most important building block in this latest basketball reconstruction era in Detroit, this time led by new general manager Troy Weaver.

Yet if you ask Hayes’ head coach, Dwane Casey, he’s also in for a rude awakening, most likely. And whether it’s Wednesday in the Pistons’ season opener against Minnesota or somewhere else down the line, Casey says, “Tough times are coming.”

“But that’s part of growing, that’s part of development, that’s part of building,” he added. “He’s gotta go through these times.”

New cast

So does this team, for that matter, considering its relative youth and inexperience, not to mention its unfamiliarity. The Pistons only return four players from a season ago — Rose, Blake Griffin, Svi Mykhailiuk and Sekou Doumbouya — after Weaver’s offseason roster overhaul, which was as quick as it was curious in some cases.

The Pistons’ new GM sold low on Luke Kennard, who was due for a big contract extension, folded Christian Wood’s free-agent departure into a sign-and-trade deal and traded away Bruce Brown for essentially nothing. Weaver also brought in a collection of players that is long on defensive versatility — and length, not coincidentally — but short on offensive punch, which will only make for a more chaotic start for a rookie point guard tasked with making it all work at that end of the floor.

Already, this was going to be a challenge, considering the 11 new faces on the roster. Griffin’s the only member of the opening-night starting lineup who even knew where the Pistons’ practice facility was a month ago. Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee were in Denver last season, and Hayes’ starting backcourt mate, Delon Wright, was in Dallas.

“I’m the only person in the starting lineup who has run this offense before,” Griffin said Monday. “And you can kind of see that at times. I think our second group, especially in practice, looks better. Derrick, Svi, Sekou — these guys at least have a year under their belts.”

Hayes, meanwhile, has a couple of years playing professionally in Europe to lean on, “which is not the NBA,” as Casey notes, “but it’s still playing against men.”

So that puts him “ahead of the curve,” his coach figures, “and he’s not gonna be overwhelmed.”

Hayes worked out some of those jitters in his preseason debut, a seven-turnover effort two weeks ago against the New York Knicks in an empty Little Caesars Arena.

“The first game was just me getting back into it,” Hayes said. “I feel like I was just doing what the defense wanted me to do. I was playing in a hurry.”

But after that, he says, “I think I did a better job of playing at my pace, playing at my rhythm.”

It showed, as Hayes had just five turnovers combined in the final three preseason games. And it’s that herky-jerky rhythm that he’ll likely rely on early in his career, if not throughout.

One of the knocks on the Euro-teen prospect heading into the draft was his overall athleticism and lack of explosiveness. He’s not a player who’s going to blow by opposing guards at the NBA level or collapse a defense with a quick-twitch first step, particularly if he’s still a bit left-hand dominant on the attack.

Faints and shoots

But Hayes can use his size — a sturdy 6-foot-5 frame with long arms — and his hesitation moves to find his way into the paint. And once he gains more confidence, the Pistons think he’ll prove to be an adept finisher at the rim as well.

That’s one of the things Rose is in his ear about on the practice floor, having taken the rookie under his wing from Day 1. And it’s also one of the things that coaches and teammates alike find encouraging.

“He listens,” Rose said. “That’s the biggest thing. He reminds me of myself. He’s always putting in extra work, he’s always listening. And not only is he listening, he’s actually implementing that into his game. Little things I tell him, you can tell that he’s taking it to heart as a point guard.”

For now, the Pistons’ rookie point guard will be at his most effective using pick-and-roll possessions, where his creativity and vision as a pass-first playmaker flash. Even in the preseason, you could see what Weaver and the Pistons’ scouts saw in his game there.

“I’m not looking at how many points, but how many plays he’s making for other people,” Casey said.

Still, the key to unlocking more of that offensive potential may lie in Hayes’ 3-point shooting, and whether he can refine an array of step-back moves into a consistent threat from deep. Hayes was only 4-for-18 behind the line in the preseason, though, and he was under 30%  last season in Germany.

“It’s something I always had, it’s something I use, especially when I want to create space quickly,” Hayes said. “But it’s something I need to keep improving on and getting more consistent.”

In the meantime, it could make for some rocky outings. Hayes will draw matchups with D’Angelo Russell, Trae Young and Steph Curry in the first week alone, as the Pistons dive into a daunting 72-game schedule that’s front-loaded with playoff teams and some brutal back-to-backs.

“I think he has the size, he has a soft touch and he has a great basketball IQ,” ESPN analyst Jalen Rose said. “But in a point guard-driven league, you hope that you get that position right. Because so many great guards are going to be coming to town on a nightly basis, putting up video game-type numbers. Hopefully, he’s able to compete defensively and continue to work, continue to get better.”

That’s exactly the message he’s getting from his head coach, too. Casey says he has told Hayes his shot is not going to fall some nights, and he’s going to make his share of mistakes as a rookie.

“But the one thing you can do is play defense,” Casey said. “You can get on the floor, you can take charges, you can sprint the floor, you can rebound as a big guard. And let the game come to you. Don’t press. Go out, compete, and have fun competing.

“We’re gonna be patient with him. We’re gonna grow him. He is a talent. … Tough times are coming for a lot of our rookies. But one thing we can do is compete and play hard as we grow.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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