It’s too soon to call Detroit Pistons’ Killian Hayes anything other than a work in progress

Detroit Free Press

LAS VEGAS — It’s too soon.

To judge, to say with any certainty what second-year Detroit Pistons point guard Killian Hayes will become.

Oh, you can have an opinion. This is the NBA. This is America, too. And you’re a sports fan, and the Pistons are — finally! mercifully! — worth having an opinion about.

For that we should be grateful.

So, yeah, opine all you want. Just remember that Hayes has played less than half a season. That he’s played two Summer League games. That last year’s Summer League was canceled. That he had an abbreviated training camp. That he got hurt three weeks into his rookie season.

That he’s been hurt again this offseason: an ankle tweak, some knee soreness. Nothing major, but enough to consistently interrupt this offseason, too, when he desperately needed to get reps.

DEFENSE RESTS: Killian Hayes becoming defensive stopper. Why that’s huge for the future

All of which undercuts the data, not to mention his ability to work on his shot, his footwork and finishing through contact. Which has left us with a more incomplete picture than we’d normally have for a player his age — he turned 20 last month. Though this isn’t saying much, either.

For how many 20-year-olds can we point to and say: they’re done or they’re on their way to stardom?

Development takes time. The pace of that development is different for everyone. And if Hayes, drafted seventh overall last year, weren’t playing alongside the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, his play out here wouldn’t be so intensely polarizing.

As it is, though, he’s riding shotgun with Cade Cunningham, and the rookie’s presence has increased the stakes tenfold. That’s the perception, anyway. Fair or not.

MORE FROM WINDSOR: Cade Cunningham’s most impressive feat so far? Capturing the cool of Detroit already

“It’s an adjustment,” said Hayes, “getting used to playing with everybody, getting the right feel for my teammates, playing five-on-five again, learning new plays, doing all this with three practices.”

He is not making excuses. He is explaining reality. Like this:

“I’ve been struggling the first two games.”

He doesn’t need anyone to tell him this. Not that he would listen. Not anymore. Not after getting sucked into social media early last year, when he couldn’t put his phone down, and he couldn’t stop reading those who thought he was a bust seven games into his career, and those who wished the Pistons had drafted someone else.

“When I first got here, I was paying attention to it all,” he admitted. “Then I got hurt early in the season. And I didn’t have an answer for the criticism. That was frustrating.”

Eventually, the man who was born in Florida, raised in France and played in Germany before arriving in Detroit figured out the only way his psyche would survive was by putting his phone down and adopting the most American of mantras:

“(Expletive) all this.”

It worked. He no longer pays attention. And he shouldn’t. It’s hard enough to move to a different country, harder still to take a job in a new country that puts you on a stage. That he made the move at 18, that he was 19 when the season started only added to the difficulty.

Again, Hayes is not complaining. He is grateful for the opportunity. He loves playing for the Pistons. He just had to develop the kind of callous most professional athletes can’t survive without.

“I had to learn to listen to the people who had my best interests, who can help me — my teammates, my coaches,” he said.

Hayes knows he needs to shoot the ball better. He knows he needs to make five simple passes for every difficult one. He knows he needs to tighten his handle and keep working on making plays going right and force himself all the way to the rim, instead of settling for a floater.

“I can’t settle,” he said, even as he said he has confidence in his floater.

He should. It’s effective. It also shows a soft touch, as do his free throws, indicators that range shooting will come.

It’s a matter of balance, of being ready, of believing, of mechanics, things he worked on with John Beilein this offseason, even if that work hasn’t shown up just yet in Summer League. Again, that work got interrupted by the ankle and knee soreness. Again, this isn’t an excuse; Hayes didn’t want to make one, either.

“You have to play through these things,” he said.

Call it a setback then. Enough of one for his head coach, Dwane Casey, to mention the injuries during a phone interview this week.

“He’s had a tough summer,” said Casey. The injuries kept him from “getting to get the work he needs. Getting that continuity.”

Casey believes it’s out there, the opportunity to work without sitting, the shooting.

“I don’t want everyone to overrate Summer League,” he said. “It’s been two games.”

It just feels like a lot more to some, to those who want to see improvement from deep and a potential fit with Cunningham. Defensively, it’s already there. That was clear Tuesday night against the Rockets, when Hayes and Cunningham showed stretches of swarming, disruptive defense, both on and off the ball.

Cunningham can’t wait to see where it leads on that end.

MORE FROM WINDSOR: Cade Cunningham loses top-rookie duel. Here’s why he may have won the night

“It’s good to have two guys that can move around and defend a lot of spots,” he said, “(guys that) switch around and accept a lot of tougher matchups, bigger matchups. Down the road, that’s what people are going to look at us as: a tough defending backcourt.”

Cunningham got in Hayes’ ear Tuesday when he struggled offensively. He reminded him how good he was defensively, and that the rest of his game would come.

“I see his confidence on that side of the ball going higher,” said Cunningham. “I know that’s going to affect his whole game.”

Every day, the coaches tell him to keep attacking, to get all the way to the rim, to take the physicality he shows on defense and apply it when he’s driving, to stop shooting the floater every time he gets to the paint.

“It’s something I’m working on,” said Hayes. “It’s mental. I rely on the floater too much because I could make it, and I forgot about attacking the rim. I need to take the same mindset I have on defense there. I need to be that dog.”

Finishing at the rim alone will help his offense and help spread the floor by forcing the defense to collapse all the way, instead of hanging back slightly waiting for the floater. That will open more passing lanes, which Hayes sees as well as any young point guard in the league.

Even if he never becomes a 40%-plus shooter, if he improves at the rim, his playmaking and finishing will fit snugly with Cunningham, especially if Hayes is attacking as the secondary ballhandler off, say, a swing pass.

“That should be our objective for him,” said Casey. “He’s really dynamic with the ball in his hands.”

But?

“He can play off the ball, too.”

This doesn’t mean he needs to be Klay Thompson. Just a more confident, precise and physical version of himself offensively. That takes time.

How long?

Longer than 26 regular season games. Longer than a Summer League. Longer than the upcoming season, though it’s fair to want to see progress. Hayes expects it. His coaches expect it, too.

“He’s a work in progress,” said Casey.

Sometimes, that’s easy to forget.

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

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