The Whiteboard: Killian Hayes is getting comfortable and showing flashes

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It’s been a rough year for the Pistons in terms of the standings, but from a player development perspective, they’ve had plenty of wins. Jerami Grant has thrived in a larger role, cast-offs like Josh Jackson and Hamidou Diallo have carved out roles for themselves and the team’s rookie class — Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee have all looked like solid rotation players. Of course, the jewel of that rookie class, No. 7 pick Killian Hayes missed 44 games in the middle of the season recovering from a torn labrum.

Even while Hayes was out recovering from injury, the Pistons’ rookie class was impressive. Both Stewart and Bey have been roughly net-neutral players, as estimated by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, which definitely exceeds the norm for most rookies. Lee has also made the most of his opportunities and could have a future as a capable back-up point guard.

Stewart is a ferocious rebounder and capable shot-blocker with the mobility to defend in space. His somewhat limited skill-set might set his ceiling as a role player but he’s already productive in that role and has yet to turn 20. Bey has been one of the most reliable outside shooters in the league this season, hitting 40.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts on a very high volume. He’s also been a very solid wing defender, using his size, strength and athleticism to match up with a variety of wings.

But both Stewart and Bey look more like high-end role players than dynamic future stars. From draft night on, Hayes was the most important piece of this draft class. And since returning to the Pistons’ lineup at the beginning of the month, he’s starting to show why.

Killian Hayes is looking more and more comfortable as a high-end playmaker

Hayes played just seven games before suffering the torn labrum the kept him out for the middle of the season, and he looked a bit lost in his first NBA action. In those seven games, he only attempted double-digit shots once and made just 27.7 percent of his shots from the field. He showed some flash as a facilitator but had nearly as many turnovers (17) as assists (25).

Hayes has now played seven games since recovering from injury, albeit with three games of rest on back-to-backs interspersed between them. He’s still struggling to hit from the beyond the arc — 8-of-33 on 3-pointers for the season — but he’s looking more comfortable making positive things happen off the dribble. Over this stretch, he’s been averaging 11.9 drives per game and shooting 46.4 percent on those drives. Ideally, that number will continue to climb north of 50 percent along with a much higher rate of fouls drawn but it’s a respectable number, about the same as Trae Young or Ja Morant across the entire season.

He’s also looked much more solid with his pull-up jumper, which has helped unlock his dribble penetration. In his seven games before the injury, Hayes made just 3-of-14 pull-up jumpers inside the arc and 1-of-8 from beyond it. In the seven games since returning, he’s just 1-of-4 on pull-up 3-pointers but has made 10-of-21 on 2-pointers. And in watching Hayes you can see how his increasing comfort with at least two key tools in his scoring arsenal has let him find a rhythm as a creator for others. He’s put a lot more space between his turnovers (18) and assists (35) over the past seven games and the higher-end of his playmaking skill set is revealing itself — leveraging pacing and touch, vision and anticipation, creativity and accuracy.

These all may seem like minor developments, especially when you consider how much improvement is still needed as an outside shooter for Hayes to really hit his ceiling as a primary creator and three-level scorer. But remember, he’s only 14 games into his NBA career (with a big gap of injury recovery dividing them in half). After 14 games LaMelo Ball had yet to break into the Hornets’ starting lineup and was shooting just 40 percent from the field and 33 percent from beyond the arc. After 14 games, Anthony Edwards was shooting 35 percent from the field and had more turnovers than assists.

Hayes is a very different kind of player from Edwards and Ball. In pre-draft analysis, he was often billed as a more NBA-ready prospect because of his high-floor, well-rounded game and professional experience overseas. Looking at his entire rookie season is likely to leave a disappointing impression, especially considering the idea of him being more NBA-ready than some of his peers. But this rookie class as a whole has been a huge positive for the Pistons and Hayes is looking more and more like he’s ready to take them to the next level.

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