No, Detroit Pistons rookie Killian Hayes is not a bust. Up close, he is so much more

Detroit Free Press

As much as the television screen likes basketball, a few things remain lost in translation.

Size, for one.

Not that Killian Hayes stands out among the giants on an NBA court. Still, he’s 6 feet 5 with a long reach, especially for his position.

Speed, for another.

Though Hayes isn’t an outlier here, either. Change of speed, however, is one of the traits that makes the Detroit Pistons rookie guard so tantalizing a player.

What’s lost more than anything is the velocity of passing, which isn’t something you often think about until you see, say, Lebron James in person, and you can almost hear the ball whizz as it makes its way to a target after it’s left his hands.

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Hayes’ passes don’t yet electrify the air as they head toward a diving Isaiah Stewart or a cutting Saddiq Bey. But velocity of his passes was noticeable up close Wednesday night at Little Caesars Arena, where the Pistons played the Los Angeles Clippers.

For a stretch in the second half, Hayes took over the game on the strength of his ability to use his left arm like a catapult. Driving into the lane before flipping the ball to a waiting shooter. Poking and prodding around a screen before whipping it between — or over — a couple of defenders to the rolling screener.

Pushing the ball on the break before firing the ball, off the dribble, to a big man who has run the floor for a dunk, as Hayes did when he found Stewart for a jam early in the fourth quarter.

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Wait. Let’s back up for a second, because this wasn’t an ordinary fastbreak and pass. This was Hayes taking off with the ball near the Clippers’ free throw line, running to just past half court, seeing three L.A. defenders ahead of him, Wayne Ellington to his right, but loosely covered, and feeling — FEELING — Stewart running behind and to his left.

Whereupon the rookie slowed down, dribbled to his right, opened his shoulder toward the center of the court in order to see as wide an angle as possible, kept his dribble, used his back to protect that dribble from defenders coming up from behind.

And waited.

For a moment.

Until Stewart snuck behind the defense a few feet from the rim, which gave Hayes an angle, impossible as it looked even in person, to laser an off-the-dribble dime into Stewart’s shooting pocket.

It was the kind of play you’d expect from Chris Paul. Not a teenager who has played in only 12 games in the NBA.

The pass came with 11 minutes left in the game and was part of a sequence where Hayes made one play after another, helping to push the Pistons to a double-digit lead. And it’s not something you can teach.

“That’s in his DNA,” said Dwane Casey. “He has a feel.”

A knack. A vision. A sense. Use whatever cliché you prefer.

Hayes prefers to boil it down to this:

“I feel like my role is to get these guys good looks,” he said.

Well, there you go. And here he comes. A couple of weeks after missing a couple of months with a hip injury. After hearing talk that he was a bust and the one wrong move Troy Weaver made in the offseason.

All he has done in his (brief) return is outplay the guard he has been linked with since the draft — Sacramento’s Tyrese Haliburton — show flashes of spectacular on-ball defense, hit the occasional floater and step-back 3-pointer, and bend the geometry of the court in a way no rookie should.

None of Hayes breathtaking assists would come without his vision, no matter the power of arm throwing the passes. It’s just easier to see his vision on television than it is to detect how quickly the ball gets to where it’s going.

It’s startling. Because it stands out, even by the standard of the NBA.

This isn’t to say the Pistons stumbled upon the next LeBron in this aspect, or even Luka Doncic, another wing with point guard skill and vision who sends missiles all over the court. But Hayes’ talent will lead to several easy buckets a game, as it did against the Clippers.

Combine that with his pace and change of speed and defense and he will make those around him better. That was clear Wednesday night in what was arguably his best 10-minute stretch of the season — his six assists don’t reflect how many teammates he threw open.

In the end, Hayes forced a couple of tough runners and tried to loft a pass to Mason Plumlee into too tight a window that led to a runout, which he made worse by fouling, even though the Clippers were in the bonus.

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So, yes, he has got to learn. A lot. And he’ll need to shoot better to be a serious difference-maker. And despite the maturity in his game, he’s still trying to figure out when to pass and when to shoot and when to pass to set up, as Casey said, “the hockey assist.”

“Time and score is huge in our league,” Casey said of Hayes’ slight stumble down the stretch against the Clippers.


“When do you make that play … when does somebody else?” he asked.

It’s a question that Casey intends to keep asking Hayes over film, and in practice, as he did Thursday after a tough loss. But the Pistons coach also doesn’t want to tamp down the gifts in Hayes’ DNA.

“One thing you don’t want to do is take that spirit,” he said.

No, he doesn’t. Because it’s there, easier to see by the game, easier to see still in person, up close, where the heat and intensity and sound of an NBA game can thrill.

Not that Hayes is worried about that just yet. He has too much to absorb, and even though he has moments where he looks ten years ahead of schedule on the break, on the pick-and-roll, he understands it’s a process.

As for the dime to Stewart and the other did-you-see-that passes?

“It’s something I work on and try to perfect,” he said, “it’s not perfect yet. Everybody loves when we get an easy bucket.”

Everybody should. Because this young guard has some things to his game and a promising ceiling that shouldn’t be forgotten, along with an increasingly rising floor.

So, no, he is not a bust. He’s just a long way from being who he might be.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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