It is hard to know what the Detroit Pistons have in young Killian Hayes. Due to a mix of injury and ineffectiveness, the early results are not encouraging but at the same time almost nearly irrelevant.
Ever since the Pistons lucked into the No. 1 overall pick and drafted Cade Cunningham, the savvy ™ Pistons analyst has responded to questions about the “fit” between Cade and Killian with a familiar response — “these two actually fit great together … if Killian ever figures out how to shoot.”
Ahhh, but there’s the rub.
Hayes shot a putrid 35% overall and 27% from 3 during his abbreviated 26-game rookie year. He followed that up with a 31% and 18% showing in three games in Summer League. Inconclusive? Yes. We’re talking 223 shots when a top-10 pick on a rebuilding team could easily get nearly triple that amount.
It’s also not worth hand waving away what is obviously a red flag. Hayes’ shot is some mix of ineffective and broken, and the still-rebuilding Pistons have to figure out the best way to address the issue. Making matters more complicated is what is bet for Hayes’ development might not be best for Cunningham’s, and all things being equal, the tie will always lean toward Cade.
Hayes could be a valuable contributor, two-way player, and if you squint you could even say he has a chance to be one of the top defensive point guards in the league while also being one of the more capable passers. He could be A guy.
But Cade could be THE guy, and the Pistons owe it to him, their franchise and their fans to do everything to turn that into a reality.
I don’t necessarily think that means making Cunningham the team’s starting point guard. While I think he obviously needs the ball in his hands a ton, I don’t think he’s doing that at the one. He would be most effective starting off the ball and playing with a capable ball handler, playmaker and shooter to help take the pressure off and make the offense more dynamic.
Is that Killian? It can be. How do you make it happen? Does it mean playing Killian in the starting lineup and giving him the starting role he had last year when he was healthy?
There’s some logic to that. Playing alongside Jerami Grant and Cade takes a ton of offensive pressure off his shoulder and allows him to focus on penetrating and passing the ball.
But it also means when he gives up the rock to one of the aforementioned wings, he becomes a player who will inevitably find himself in the corner with no defensive attention and no sense of being a scoring threat.
Would it be better to start a capable veteran like the re-signed Cory Joseph, who is more of a threat at the rim off cuts and shot a career-best 36.8% from 3 as a member of the Pistons last season?
That would mean Hayes is coming off the bench against lesser competition but with more offensive responsibility. That might not have good early returns, but it would mean he could bomb away from deep without much remorse as he looks to build up a functional NBA shot. It also means he’d be playing alongside solid 3-point threats like Kelly Olynk (who will also see plenty of time alongside four starters), Frank Jackson and the athletic bull rushers Hamidou Diallo and perhaps Josh Jackson or a Trey Lyles.
Hayes would find plenty of room to operate with the ball in his hands in that scenario and plenty of better shooters and rim attackers who could receive the ball. This would allow him to pick his spots, build up his confidence and hopefully an effective shooting profile.
And while this piece is all about Killian, the uncomfortable truth is in reality it can’t really be all about Killian now if it ever could be before. There are plenty of developing pieces on this roster, and Hayes could quickly find himself on the outside looking in.
If Hayes’ non-shooting impedes the development of the players in his rookie class (Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey or Saben Lee), or gets in the way of the burgeoning games of Diallo, Jackson or anyone else. Well, it might be time for uncomfortable conversations, and even more uncomfortable decisions.
Hayes didn’t have much of a rookie year, but the reality is he’s already running out of time to show the Pistons’ brass he should be a part of the future.
He needs to become some kind of offensive threat. And the Pistons need to maximize Cade Cunningham. Perhaps the answer to both those riddles is to start Killian and hope that the talent on display and the results in the box score look a lot better by the end of the season than they do in the beginning.
But if the best answer is to bring Hayes off the bench or feature him in a reduced role or even do some intensive mechanical adjustments that require a stint in the G League. They have to be willing to make that call. The clock is ticking, it’s a tough business, and a franchise’s fortunes, and its priorities can chance as quickly as you can pick out some lottery balls.