Las Vegas — Killian Hayes is finally getting his first shot at the NBA Summer League. Even if it’s a year late because of the pandemic, it’s a long-awaited opportunity to work on his game, to show why he was so highly regarded as the Pistons’ No. 7 selection last season.
As a teenager coming from Europe, the expectations were high. With the pandemic canceling Summer League last year, Hayes’ first taste of NBA game action was a baptism by fire in the first regular-season game. Hayes played in seven games before going into a three-month purgatory following a hip injury that put his rookie season on pause.
Shifting back to a different pace in the first two Summer League games has given Hayes a more prominent role on both the offensive and defensive ends and to show some his full game in a different environment. There’s some good and some bad, but after playing in only 26 of 72 games last season, every game — even in Summer League — is an opportunity for improvement.
“I’ve been struggling these last two games but definitely in that (next) game, I’ve got to really show what I’ve been working on,” Hayes told The Detroit News. “I feel like I’ve been quiet, just being a little passive. I’ve got to really be more aggressive. I’ve been really aggressive on the defensive end; I need to bring the same thing on the offensive end.”
That’s been the book on Hayes — tough defender, good facilitator, developing scorer. He shot a woeful 28% on 3-pointers as a rookie but averaged 5.3 assists and showed crisp passing and an ability to create opportunities for himself in the mid-range and with his floater.
Finding a rhythm on his jump shot has proven elusive, despite some work with John Beilein, who is on the player-development staff. Hayes has missed all six of his 3-point attempts in the first two Summer League games and is 5-for-14 overall from the field.
The next stage of Hayes’ development will come from improving his 3-point percentage — starting with getting his feet set and maintaining balance — and finishing at the rim. He’s confident in his floater, but to become a more complete offensive threat, he’s going to have to make defenders respect his jump shot as well.
“That’s something that I’ve had, the floater. All around, in my game, I’ve just got to be more aggressive,” Hayes said. “Just think rim first and then once you attack the rim, everything else opens up. So, with my instinct, I’ll be able to find like the right pass to make.”
In the Summer League opener, Hayes had four assists in the first five minutes, setting up No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham on the perimeter and creating easy opportunities with his penetration in the paint. Defenders are making the adjustment and pushing Hayes to shoot, which sometimes leaves him caught in between his objectives of creating for others primarily or finding an easy shot for himself secondarily.
“I’m a creator, but I’m trying to get everybody in the right position to be successful. I know what Saddiq (Bey) needs; I know what Saben (Lee) and what Cade need to be successful,” Hayes said. “Now I need to be more aggressive and try to look to score. If not, make the right read.”
Defense doesn’t rest
As Hayes works his way through the offensive progression, he’s finding other ways to contribute. As much as he’s tried to find a niche offensively, he’s excelled on the defensive end, with superb footwork and positioning against the Rockets to stay in front of No. 2 pick Jalen Green.
His work with a tough defensive assignment drew praise from Pistons assistant J.D. DuBois, who is coaching the Summer League team.
“Killian can really hang his hat on his defense,” DuBois said. “I’m not sure what everybody thought about his defense coming out, but I really feel with his size and his anticipation with his hands, his defense can be a really big strength for him and our team moving forward.”
Good defense isn’t nearly as noticeable as good offense, especially in Summer League, but Hayes is leaning on one of the strengths that he showed in his time in Europe. Defense always travels, and he’s brought it in droves.
“When the offensive end doesn’t work out how you want to, you can always bring energy in locking down their best player, and I take pride in doing that,” he said. “The coaching staff really talked about how it can have an impact on the defensive end, so I took pride in doing that and making the game hard for guys like Jalen.”
Despite the two losses, one of the highlights for the Pistons has been the defense that Hayes and Cunningham have shown as a backcourt tandem. Although Cunningham started with defending Green, Hayes was able to switch and be effective in guarding him when Cunningham went to the bench. That’s a huge development for their team defense.
“I liked (Hayes’ defense) a lot, and I was telling him that I don’t see too many guards coming out of their rookie year that are better than you, as far as getting through screens and just staying attached to your man,” Cunningham said. “I see his confidence on that side of the ball going hard and I know that’s going to affect his whole overall game.”
Feel out process
With the addition of Cunningham, some outside the organization thought that having both of them was redundant as point guards. They’re showing in Summer League that they can coexist and bring out each other’s strengths.
It’s still taking time to mesh on the court, and their practice time was limited by minor injuries last week, so it’s not going to show immediately in Summer League. As they learn each other, what’s coming through is Cunningham’s role as the front man.
“Cade is a leader. He’s always talking, even on free throws. He’s always talking and communicating with us,” Hayes said. “He’s a great leader, and on the offensive end, you can see how he can score the ball off the bounce, driving and finding kick-outs. He’s a great all-around player.”
Summer League isn’t the same as it would have been last year for any of the rookies, but getting the experience is going to help as Hayes navigates his way in the NBA. Playing point guard isn’t easy, but Summer League is helping make that transition a bit easier, even if it’s delayed a year.
“If we would have had a (Summer League) last year, it would have definitely helped. You get a better feel, especially for the rookies,” Hayes said. “You get a better feel for it and you can learn the terminology and our set plays. You feel better coming into the regular season after doing Summer League because you get that freedom of playing with NBA rules, playing with our systems and all that, so it definitely helps.”
Pistons vs. Lakers
► Tip-off: 10 p.m. Saturday, Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
► TV: ESPN2
► Outlook: The Pistons play their final preliminary game in Summer League and both teams will be on the second game of a back-to-back. The Lakers roster has two former Michigan players in Chaundee Brown and Zavier Simpson.