Playing point guard in the NBA doesn’t come easily. Even some of the elite prospects have trouble making the transition to the speed of the game and the difference from playing in college or overseas.
One season does not a career make.
Judging Pistons guard Killian Hayes solely by his rookie season is foolhardy in many ways, especially because he had very little offseason preparation, because he missed 41 games in the middle of the 72-game season because of a hip injury — and another five because of injury management in the final stretch — and because of a pandemic.
Most critics will point to Hayes’ pedestrian numbers: 6.8 points, 2.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists (with 3.2 turnovers) and a surprisingly low 35% on field goals and 28% on 3-pointers. Those aren’t numbers that one would expect from a No. 7 overall pick, but given the context of only 26 games and a rebuilding team, there’s more to consider.
On a team stocked with young players, there was a lot to learn all the way around, and this offseason, which could look a little more normal, including a Summer League in Las Vegas in August, could be huge for Hayes and fellow rookies Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee. Add in a likely top-four pick, and it turns into an important summer for all of them.
“I got a lot of work, especially like going into the offseason,” Hayes said. “There’s a big offseason awaiting all of us to get it right. We know what we’ve got to do and what we need to work on.
“It felt good just getting to the court being back out there with my teammates but now it’s time to work for real. It’s a big summer coming up and we’ll be ready for next season.”
For those already ready to give up on Hayes and call him a bust, consider the last great Pistons point guard, Chauncey Billups, who was the No. 3 overall pick by the Boston Celtics in 1997. As a rookie, his numbers weren’t impressive either: 11.2 points, 3.9 assists and 33% on 3-pointers.
Billups didn’t really figure it out until his sixth year in the league, which also was his first with the Pistons. He posted 16.2 points, 3.7 assists and 3.9 rebounds and shot 39% on 3-pointers in 2002-03, after bouncing around in Boston, Toronto, Denver and Minnesota before settling in with the Pistons.
Sometimes, it’s just the right situation and having some real time to figure things out before labeling a player a bust. Everything doesn’t come immediately to every rookie, and point guard is one of the toughest positions to learn.
General manager Troy Weaver identified Hayes as his choice and with the success Weaver has had in free agency and with his other draft picks, it’s reasonable to give Hayes more time — and more normalcy — before chucking the baby-faced rookie with the bathwater.
One of the big challenges for Hayes, 19, who played professionally in Europe before arriving to the NBA, is that the speed of the game is much faster, and the intricacies are more pronounced.
“The NBA is tough. Coming from overseas, it’s different. It’s still basketball, but there are a lot of nuances of the NBA game versus the European game, and it’s tough,” Weaver said. “We’ve got to be ready every night to compete and fight and understand that there’s no easy way out.
“If you want to be successful in this league and be a good player, you’ve got to fight for it.”
That’s not to say that Hayes didn’t take things seriously, but there’s a different grind on a game-to-game basis that steels young players for the level of competition they’ll face. In his first stint of games, Hayes faced All-Stars in Trae Young, Steph Curry and Jrue Holiday.
That’s quite a baptism into the NBA.
Hayes never was projected to be a top-line scorer in the NBA. His elite skills were his passing and defense, areas where he excelled as a rookie. Creating opportunities for others and getting to the paint never were issues.
What he seemed to struggle with were 3-point shooting and being more aggressive to score once he got past his defender in the paint. In Summer League, Hayes will have time to work on those skills — against equal talent — which will make for a nice to-do list for the offseason.
“Well, one is working on his shooting and his balance on the shot,” coach Dwane Casey said. “The other area is now that he’s felt the speed and the length and the physicality of the defense, to make sure he does everything at a high speed, whether it’s his shooting drills, his workout drills.
“Whatever it is, he’s got to do those at game speed to get used to the speed of the NBA game.”
Hayes looked better when he moved off the ball in the last few games of the season and let Lee play as the point guard. That seemed to help Hayes engage more and to not be bogged down on facilitating offense by himself.
In Hayes’ last five games, the numbers looked better: 11.2 points, 6.4 assists and 35% on 3-pointers. It’s about the adjustments and figuring out how his game is best suited for this roster, which seems to be very much on Weaver’s radar.
With another year under his belt, things could look different for Hayes.
Just give it some time.