Detroit — In his rookie season, Killian Hayes was limited to 26 games after missing three months because of a hip injury. It was a dark cloud over a season that brought optimism with the additions of two other NBA All-Rookie selections in the first round.
Even with the addition of Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 pick, Hayes still figures to play a prominent role as a primary ballhandler and initiator on offense. Coach Dwane Casey has said that Hayes and Cunningham are 1-A and 1-B as options, and it’s looking like that’ll be the case heading into the preseason.
Hayes returns this season as the likely starter with the ball in his hands — not necessarily carrying the label of the only point guard. Casey prefers multiple ballhandlers on the court at the same time, and Casey said Hayes has been the main ballhandler and is making an impression early with his improvement over the summer.
“Killian has done a heck of a job; I think he’s leading the team in assists and he was pushing the ball and he made the right basketball plays,” Casey said Thursday. “In the scrimmage today, he allowed the blue team to score easily, so I love the way he’s pushing the pace.”
It’s a different scenario from last year, when the rookies didn’t have a normal schedule — no Summer League or regular training camp — to get adjusted to the NBA. Hayes suffered his injury just seven games into the season and had a better finish in the last few weeks, but after playing in about a third of the games, he has a much better start this year, including voluntary workouts that began this month.
“It’s definitely way different. Last year, we just came in and everything was late and rushed. This year, we had the time and a lot of guys were here all summer working,” Hayes said. “We’ve been at it since September 1, so we’re just keeping our routine and keep on working.”
No matter what it looks like, a lot of it is going to be how things feel and how Hayes perceives things in his mind. There were some high points for Hayes and Cunningham as a backcourt duo in Summer League, but Hayes will need to be more of a threat on the offensive end, which continues to be his path for improvement.
“Yeah, everything is just more clear. It’s like a clear view, playing with a clear mind, knowing what you’ve got to do and knowing the (offensive) sets definitely helps,” Hayes said.
It’s already showing up in training camp, with players taking note of Hayes being more aggressive and pushing the ball on the offensive end. With Hayes, it’s more about finding a comfort level than trying to be a high-volume scorer.
If he’s setting up his teammates for easier looks from the perimeter or for drives to the basket, he’s done his job.
“He’s playing very confident and very aggressive, so it’s good to see him do that,” forward Saddiq Bey said. “You can just see the development and growth that he’s had, so it’s good to see him being aggressive out there.”
Back to basics with Beilein
Former Michigan coach John Beilein, who has been helping with player development with the Pistons, has been behind the scenes, but he’s been still making an impact.
Casey has remarked how Beilein’s focus on fundamentals is impressive, but he’ll focus on some of the Pistons’ shortcomings last season, finishing near the bottom of the league in turnovers. More than that, it’s just getting a good foundation of skills to do many of the small things better.
“With us, we need the fundamentals because we’re so young. Even our older guys need the fundamentals — the footwork, the passing, the step-through passing, the two-hand to one-hand passes — all the simple, basic things, are a reason why we were 27th and closer to the 28th and 29th in turnovers.
“That’s one reason why we’re doing it and we do it every day. (Beilein) has done a heck of a job of working on those things, setting up the drills, It’s nothing we haven’t done in our careers but he’s done it at a good level and he’s developed shooters, so he’s doing a good job for us in those areas that we’re going to continue to do.”
With the roster pretty much set heading into training camp, the only questions might be about which players are in the rotation. Casey said that he anticipates the regular rotation being only nine or 10 players.
That’ll make for competition at the wings spots and for some minutes in other positions. Casey said he hasn’t decided on a starting lineup, but he conceded that the second unit likely will have more veterans, which narrows the options.
Those spots aren’t set in stone, though.
“Somebody could squeeze into that nine or 10 scenario in the beginning. It’s going to be about production, about playing, about guys getting the job done,” Casey said. “Some nights, it may be matchups if we’re playing against a small team, but I think it’s mathematically tough to get meaningful minutes for more than nine or 10 in a game. Those last two or three spots could be rotated. It’s going to depend on how well guys are playing and their productivity.”