Pistons guard Killian Hayes had an eventful first season in the NBA. He was drafted in the first round of the draft in November, moved into a starting role immediately after a truncated offseason with no Summer League preparation and worked his way back after a significant injury.
His father, DeRon, went through it too, from a different perspective. As a former professional basketball player overseas, he knew some of the pitfalls his son was going to face, but that didn’t make them any easier for him or for Killian.
DeRon and Killian have a father-son bond that’s linked by basketball, something that not many NBA players have. DeRon, who played primarily in France, blazed a trail for Killian to follow, but now the father gets to watch his son live out his NBA dreams.
Understanding DeRon’s story takes some understanding of the time. He was the son of a basketball player, just an honest hard-working man who wanted the best for his children. DeRon was a good player around the Lakeland, Florida. area — and he just loved basketball.
“When I grew up, I was just playing. I always played on a good team and we’d go to the championships. I was out there just to ball, on the street or in the gym,” DeRon told The Detroit News. “I got an opportunity to go to college, coming from Florida to Penn State and people said why Penn State?
“I didn’t want to be like the typical guy that goes to a Florida school. I could have gone to Florida State or Miami or South Florida. I needed to get out of here and see something different.”
His path ended up being something much different than the typical college player. After four years at Penn State, he finished his college career in 1993 but he had stiff competition, even in the Big Ten.
There wasn’t a lineage of NBA players for DeRon to follow from Penn State, so he just looked to play wherever he could. He found his way to some NBA tryouts, but he had some bad luck that kept him from an NBA dream.
“I didn’t know (what to do) because nobody from Penn State ever got that far to get to the NBA. I didn’t know the process, so I was kind of late getting (to tryouts),” he said. “So, my thing was on to the next. I went to play in these little pro camps, and I did get a tryout for the Orlando Magic and I made it to the last day of cuts before the veteran camp, and I got hurt.
“I got the chance to go overseas and it was overseas ever since.”
DeRon made a career out of playing internationally, where only two American players were allowed on a team. That meant he was expected to be the main scorer, while many of his teammates were role players who didn’t have the same skill level.
That was a role DeRon relished, but it also meant a lot of pressure — not just to be the primary scorer and leader, but to turn those numbers into wins and eventually championships. He settled in France for most of his 20s, but when he started a family, he wanted to stay there, but he wanted to make one more attempt to play in the U.S.
“I used (the international experience) as a steppingstone to get better, and just get ready for the States. In 2000, I came back and played for the ABA with the Indiana Legends,” DeRon said. “I got drafted by them and I said this was my last chance (in the U.S.). The money was pretty good and I didn’t want to play in the CBA.
“The money overseas was pretty good, so I said this is my last time playing in the States. I went and played in the ABA and I played pretty good, and it was kind of like the NBA, because you go to all these different cities, and you play five games a week. It was the same lifestyle, but it didn’t stick because the league went bankrupt.”
Later that year, Killian was born and things changed quickly for DeRon. He wanted stability for his family, which meant going back to France, where he had the biggest success of his career. He knew his way around the basketball scene, and he was comfortable with the culture there, so it was an easy decision.
“When (Killian) was born, it’s just like another reason. I said, ‘This is my reason — he’s right here.’ I’m going out here to ball, and make sure everybody’s taken care of and I want him to be in a safe environment,” DeRon said. “In France, the health care system is the best. We’re just living over there and everybody is safe, the basketball is good and they work hard. They really take care of their young players.”
That remained true through the time Killian became a professional player, also latching on with Cholet in his teenage years. Cholet was an early proving ground for Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert, as well as Rodrigue Beaubois and Kevin Seraphin.
When Killian was younger, DeRon didn’t want to bring him back to the U.S. for his early development. He admired the team structure in Europe and found that it was a better fit for his son.
“I watched a lot of them grow up into a system where it’s team first, work hard, and you play to win, with the values of teamwork and camaraderie and discipline. It’s not like (one player) is special; it’s all about the team and what you do on the team,” DeRon said. “You work hard every day in practice, and I love that idea.
“I was looking at what was happening in the States and I knew I would have to go back one day. I thought about what I wanted my son to experience and what’s best for him, so I was looking in the States and I saw the AAU circuit and I said no.”
The son rises
Killian became a standout on the international circuit as a teenager, making his mark at the Jordan Brand Classic game when he was just 15 years old. He helped his team win the Under-16 European Championships and already was playing with a 21-and-under team in France, which was the No. 1 team in the world.
There was one specific play when DeRon saw a glimmer of himself in Killian’s play — and let him know that his son was destined for the NBA.
“The moment was when he had a good game at the Jordan Brand Classic and he got co-MVP with Addison Patterson, and then he had to go on to a training camp with the under-16 European Championship,” he said. “He played against a team in Italy as a practice game and we were watching on the internet. He’s playing and he got a fast break and he went down and dunked on somebody. And I was like, ‘Oh, it’s done.’”
His intuition proved true, as Killian rose to prominence in the draft. When the draft boards developed, his name continued to be bandied about. During the pandemic, everything was pushed back, and the draft, which normally occurs in July, was moved back to November.
It was frustrating, but it only delayed the inevitable.
“There were no words. To see him waiting for his name to be called, we could see he was really doing it. After so long, you say we’re finally here,” DeRon said. “We’ve been waiting and it’s like OK we’re finally here. Even before then, with the individual workout and coaches watching, and just to see how he grinded it out. He didn’t have not one bad workout.”
Being selected by the Pistons seemed to fit well, because former Pistons guard Will Bynum helped Killian get prepared for the draft. Through his first season, things were up and down, but with a normal-ish offseason, he can be more with a healthy second season.
And DeRon will be watching every minute of it.