On May 9, Killian Hayes had his best game as a Detroit Piston, with 21 points, eight assists and seven rebounds against the Chicago Bulls. It was a far more confident and relaxed version of the Hayes we’d seen for most of the season, as the rookie aggressively hunted for his shot in the second half.
Hayes set season highs in points, shots attempted (17) and shots made (9) while remaining a playmaker. The caveat: He did it while spending significant time playing with fellow rookie point guard Saben Lee in the second half. Not having to initiate every possession appeared to unburden Hayes.
It wasn’t his first time playing off of the ball last season, but it was the first game that showcased Hayes’ potential as an off-guard.
“I love it,” Hayes said of playing alongside Lee. “That was the second game I played at the same time as Saben, and I love it. Just playing and being able to be off the ball makes the game more fun. When you always have the ball in your hand, the defense can read what you want to do. Me being off of it, Saben doing his thing, creating, I like playing the combo (guard).”
That’s good news for the Pistons, who used the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s draft to select Cade Cunningham — a 6-foot-8 point guard with few, if any, holes in his game. Cunningham was the consensus best prospect in a draft that had four players talented enough to go No. 1 in the 2020 draft. He’s a gifted playmaker and elite shooter and has the size to be a multi-positional defender in the NBA.
It’s tough to see Cunningham having any significant fit issues with the Pistons next season, given that he can thrive on and off the ball. Draft experts and people around the league believe he has clear superstar potential. But his fit next to Hayes, who entered the NBA less than a year ago with a reputation as a strong playmaker and ball-handler, will help to define the ceiling of this Pistons core. There will be a feeling-out process, but it’s a process that both players appear to be eager for.
A mutually-beneficial pairing
After hearing his name called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Thursday, Cunningham addressed the media and was highly complimentary of the core Pistons GM Troy Weaver has assembled. That included praise for Hayes, who he predicted will have a big season next year after a rookie season limited by a hip injury. Cunningham believes playing next to Hayes will be mutually beneficial.
“I think me stepping in will help Killian a lot, and I think Killian will help me a whole lot,” he said. “We’ll take a lot of pressure off of each other, and both of us are capable of being primary ball-handlers, and both of us are capable of playing off the ball and making things happen off the ball. I feel like it will be a good mix. I feel like it’ll bring a lot of versatility to our backcourt. We’re both big, we’re both strong and we’re both playing under control. It’ll be a different look for a backcourt and I think we’ll be successful.”
There’s obvious upside to the Cunningham-Hayes pairing. As Cunningham alluded to, they’re both big for their positions. He’s 6-8 with a 7-foot wingspan, and Hayes is 6-5 with a 6-8 wingspan. It’ll give the Pistons plenty of defensive flexibility in their starting lineup, assuming both start. Pistons coach Dwane Casey praised Hayes’ defense often last season, as he was willing to battle through screens and did a respectable job keeping foes in front of him.
On offense, Cunningham’s versatility will ease the load off of not only Hayes, but the rest of the roster. He averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists and hit 40% of his 5.7 3-point attempts per game during his lone season at Oklahoma State. He’s a catch-and-shoot threat, and his ability to work the pick-and-roll and push the ball in transition should free Hayes to hunt for space. Hayes showed promise as a playmaker last season, and it was his best skill coming out of Europe. But as we saw on May 9, he may have some untapped potential playing without the ball.
Cunningham’s arrival will also put additional pressure on Hayes to develop as a shooter, though. He only hit 27.8% of his 3-pointers last season. Improving his outside shot has been a priority this offseason, and he has been in the gym with new player development coach John Beilein.
“The coaches put us through different drills, so we got five-minute of shooting trying to get 85 shots up, get above 60%, 70%,” Hayes said last week. “We’ve got a whole bunch of shooting drills. It’s a lot of competitive stuff, so just keeps us going.”
Even if Hayes doesn’t develop quite enough as a shooter, he could be a productive player next to Cunningham. But if he can reliably hit catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, it will greatly increase the ceiling of the pairing.
Cade the connector
Cunningham is in the exact mold of the NBA’s best playmakers: Lead ball-handlers who are threats to pull-up from 3 and can make any pass, such as Trae Young and Luka Doncic, are incredibly valuable. They lead to winning, and Cunningham should immediately raise the floor for the Pistons.
Because Cunningham is so big, it’ll give Casey the freedom to experiment with lineups next season, as the rookie can play multiple positions, defend multiple positions and fill almost any role the coaching staff needs him to.
He’s a perfect fit for the Pistons, because he’s a perfect fit anywhere. It’s now up to Casey and his staff to figure out how to maximize his ability.
“He’s a multi-positional player,” Casey said of Cunningham. “On any team, you gotta have multiple ball-handlers, playmakers. He can do that. Killian can do that. They can play together. He can play also a small forward position if you want to play small with Jerami (Grant) possibly at the five. He checks a lot of boxes from that standpoint.
“One thing that all these players have, that fit, is their basketball IQ,” he continued. “All of them are high-level IQ guys, and Cade starts that. Tom (Gores) said it too, he connects everybody, whether he’s at the one, two, three, it really doesn’t matter. Cade can be that connector for any lineup we have.”