It has been a long absence for Killian Hayes. He has missed nearly three months of basketball after tearing his right hip labrum on Jan. 4. As the Detroit Pistons’ other rookies have all thrived and cracked the rotation this season, Hayes has watched from the sidelines, eagerly awaiting his return.
That moment will finally come Saturday, as the Pistons (14-34) cleared their rookie point guard to play against the New York Knicks, leaving him off the injury report. The news comes slightly ahead of Hayes’ initial re-evaluation date of April 6. The Pistons opted for the 19-year-old point guard to rehab his injury, rather than undergo surgery, and it has cleared the way for him to re-enter the rotation with 24 games to play.
Hayes’ injury occurred seven games into his season, which gives us a small sample size to go off. He’ll have six weeks to re-acclimate himself and show more glimpses of why the Pistons took him seventh overall last fall.
Here are three questions for Hayes and the Pistons ahead of his return, with exactly one-third of the season (24 games) remaining:
Can Hayes finish season stronger than he started it?
Hayes entered his rookie season with several disadvantages. Due to the pandemic, he didn’t have summer league and the usual months-long period of offseason workouts and training camp to get acclimated to the NBA’s pace and physicality.
It’s likely a reason why his first seven games underwhelmed. He averaged 4.6 points, 3.6 assists and 1.1 rebounds in 21.1 minutes per game, shooting 27.7% overall (13-for-47) and 25% from 3 (5-for-20). While he looked sharp defensively and showed flashes of the playmaking that made him the seventh pick of the draft, he often looked uncomfortable as a scorer.
After watching the game from the sidelines and spending extra time watching film over the past few months, Hayes recently said the game has slowed down for him compared to December and early January.
“I started my rehab process and the benefit of that is I got the opportunity to work on my body a lot,” Hayes said. “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.
While nothing can replace playing live games, coach Dwane Casey said the Pistons worked hard to keep Hayes engaged during his absence. It should be beneficial for him.
“We’ve done every exercise possible to keep him mentally sharp,” Casey said in mid-March. “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.”
Will Hayes (eventually) resume his place in starting lineup?
The Pistons handed Hayes the keys to their offense from day one. He started all four preseason games and all seven of regular season games before the injury. While the coaching staff was, and still is, high on Hayes’ NBA readiness, Casey recently acknowledged they will bring Hayes along more slowly now.
“I probably put him at a disadvantage of starting him right off the bat,” Casey said. “Wanted to throw him in the deep end and he did and that was probably a reason for his struggles, well not struggles, but he didn’t play as well as he would’ve liked. We want to bring him along slow, whether it’s with the second unit or along with another point guard, we’ll see how we do with that. The rest of the games are for development, for him to get the experience of the games he missed we can’t replace.”
With Delon Wright no longer on the roster, there’s a void in the starting lineup Hayes could fill. Dennis Smith Jr. has missed five straight games with a lower back injury, Cory Joseph is still new to the roster and Saben Lee, who has exceeded expectations as a rookie on a two-way contract, is still raw in some areas. While Hayes may not start as soon as he returns, he could work his way back into the starting lineup before the end of the season May 16.
How will Casey handle guard rotation?
Detroit’s roster has changed a lot in the three months since Hayes’ injury. Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Wright and Svi Mykhailiuk are on new teams. Lee has established himself as a rotation player. Smith is looking to re-establish himself as an up-and-coming point guard deserving of a payday this summer, and Joseph has played significant minutes as the lone veteran point guard on the roster less than two weeks after his arrival.
With Wayne Ellington, Hamidou Diallo and Josh Jackson all being viable options at shooting guard, Casey has a lot of options to work with at both guard positions. He wants to run more two-point guard sets to find minutes for everyone and ease Hayes back into the rotation, but there are only so many minutes to go around.
With Griffin and Rose gone, Casey can see Hayes having an easier time getting involved in the offense as a lead playmaker. But to be as effective off-the-ball, he’ll have to show he can consistently hit outside shots. Casey is confident he can do so, and believes it’ll be beneficial for Hayes to not have to worry about deferring to two veterans while on the floor.
“That should free him up a little bit,” Casey said. “I thought he was trying to please everybody, and at the point guard position you can’t do that in the NBA. You gotta tell guys ‘get over there’ and ‘get your butt over there’ and all of those things. I think he’ll play a little bit freer now. With freedom comes responsibility and making the right decisions on his part. This should be his time to handle the ball, make the right decisions … build winning, playmaking habits offensively.”