When Detroit Pistons guard Killian Hayes’ hip injury occurred against the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 4, he initially didn’t realize the full severity of it. He was in pain after contesting a layup early in the third quarter and grabbed his right thigh.
He figured there was a chance he would be able to return to the game. Then he tried to run, and realized he couldn’t.
An MRI the next day revealed that Hayes had torn his right hip labrum — an injury that has had severe consequences for some NBA players. He feared that he would have to have surgery, an outcome that would’ve potentially ended his rookie season.
After meeting with several doctors, the Pistons decided that surgery wasn’t necessary. His rehab process started on Jan. 20. After a slow start to his season, the last two months have given him a chance to learn, observe and continue to grow. He has worked with the team nutritionist to cut down his body fat, and has eliminated sugar from his diet.
On Tuesday, the Pistons announced that Hayes was cleared Hayes to return to on-court activity with a re-evaluation in three weeks. A practice highlight reel the Pistons tweeted on Tuesday showed him dishing behind-the-back passes and lobs.
Hayes is seeing positives in the tumultuous start to his NBA career. And he’s eager to resume right where he left off, with a deeper knowledge of his teammates and of a playbook he didn’t have much time to learn during the offseason.
“I saw multiple doctors and they said I didn’t need a surgery, so that was a great thing,” Hayes said on Tuesday, addressing the media for the first time since his injury. “So I started my rehab process and the benefit of that is I got the opportunity to work on my body a lot. I’ve been able to watch all the games from a different point of view, so I get to learn what point guards on the other teams, even our system, how our guys play and everything. It’s been tough at the beginning but now I’m seeing the bright light and I’m just excited to come back.”
His injury was a physical setback, but the Pistons kept their top draft pick in last year’s draft engaged mentally through his rehab process. He has attended all of the pregame Zoom meetings, listened to the game-planning during practices and got in extra film sessions with the coaching staff. He has been watching their home games from the sidelines and recently resumed traveling with them.
Hayes said the game has slowed down for him since he’s been able to watch opposing teams from a different point of view. Head coach Dwane Casey quizzes him during games, asking him what he would do in various situations.
“We’ve done every exercise possible to keep him mentally sharp,” Casey said. “Nothing takes the place of physically getting out there and he’s gradually getting into that, doing those things and he’s looking pretty good. The key is there’s no substitution for it, but he’s got all the mental work and printouts of what we’re doing and putting anything in new.”
Like the rest of the 2020 NBA draft class, Hayes had little time to prepare for the season. Summer league was canceled, and Hayes had roughly three weeks to learn the playbook and get acquainted with his teammates before their first preseason game.
The Pistons gave Hayes the green light from Day 1. He started all four preseason games and all seven of his regular season games before his injury. The rationale was that Hayes’ professional experience in Europe adequately prepared him for the NBA.
While Hayes showed flashes as a passer and defender, he struggled to score.
He averaged 4.6 points, 3.6 assists and 1.1 rebounds in 21.1 minutes per game, shooting 27.7% overall and 25% from 3. Casey acknowledged on Tuesday that while beginning the season as a starter gave Hayes some valuable experience, it also put him at a disadvantage.
When Hayes returns, Casey said the Pistons will bring him along more slowly, either with the second unit or alongside another point guard.
“I still stand by our decision to start him, just because I think it did serve him well even though he faced adversity shooting the ball, whatever it was,” Casey said. “I think he’s going to grow from that. It’s sad to say, you don’t want to have anyone injured but he should learn from this too. He had a chance to slow down, observe everything, listen, watch what we do in shootarounds and the game and watch film with us, sitting in the film sessions. In a crazy way, he should benefit from that too.”
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