Cleveland — Judging by the numbers or a cursory glance, Killian Hayes is having a ho-hum season so far.
Underneath that analytical epidermis lies a little bit more about how Hayes is developing in his second season and getting more comfortable in the backcourt alongside Cade Cunningham.
More than any point in his 26 games last year, Hayes looks to be more comfortable from a game-to-game basis, which was the hope when the Pistons selected Cunningham first overall in the draft.
It wasn’t that Cunningham or Hayes would be the point guard and the other the shooting guard. The hope was that they’d find a way to coexist and seamlessly just occupy both backcourt spots.
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It’s a slow process, but there are some signs that it’s starting to come together, and Hayes is looking more comfortable because of it.
“One thing is Cade is handling the ball a bit more, and I think it’s relaxed (Hayes) as he grows. Hopefully, at some point, those two will get a rhythm of when one has (the ball), what the other one has to do,” coach Dwane Casey said Friday. “Right now, it’s still not natural, and hopefully, it grows to be organic as they grow together. Both have a lot of growth and I’m happy with their growth and the direction they’re going.
“It’s not showing in our record, but they are growing; I think that’s attributed to handling the ball a little bit more, and taking some of the ball-handling responsibilities off. (Hayes) is freed up a little bit to shoot it, his mind is freed up a little bit, and his defense has been solid since day one. You’re seeing his growth right in front of us.”
The focus is not on the numbers, and although the numbers aren’t eye-popping, he’s finding his way on the court and becoming more integrated in the offense.
His six points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists are down from last season, but after a slow start to the season, he’s having some flashes that he’s starting to get it. Everything’s not going to come all at once, so even moderate progress is something to feel good about.
“He’s doing a good job. He’s a strong kid and people forget how big and strong he is as a young kid,” Casey said. “A lot of things he’s going to do physically, whether it’s screening, some of the rebounding situations, he gets his guy off the mark with. He does a lot of things that don’t show up in the stat sheet.”
Filling the void
With Kelly Olynyk out because of an MCL sprain in his left knee and expecting to miss at least six weeks, the Pistons are going to have to get creative in trying to fill in for their leading reserve scorer.
Rookie Luka Garza looks to be the primary solution, but with his inexperience, Casey seems prepared to turn to some other options as well, including using Trey Lyles as a small-ball center.
“(Garza)’s got to get used to defending the paint in the NBA, that’s one thing he’s got to do, whether it’s taking the charge or going vertical, and the timing of it,” Casey said. “He’s a tough kid, and he’s fearless, which is great. He has a lot of confidence in himself, which he should.
“He was a very accomplished player in college and just learning the nuances in the NBA and the speed of the game (is tough). Just the timing of it and he’s not the only one who went through it.”
It’s a learning curve that Garza will have to adjust to, just as Isaiah Stewart did as a rookie. Friday was the first taste, with a pair of 7-foot centers for the Cavaliers: Jarrett Allen and rookie Evan Mobley.
“Isaiah went through the same thing, so it’s nothing new. He’ll get an opportunity now to go against some legit 7-footers tonight. It’s the little things — the timing of the screens, the timing of the passes, the timing of when to take a shot, or when to swing, all those things he will get as he gets more playing time.”
Pistons at Raptors
►Tipoff: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Air Canada Centre, Toronto
►Outlook: The Pistons finish their three-game road trip against coach Dwane Casey’s former team. Fred VanVleet (19.7 points and 7.1 assists) leads the Raptors (7-6), who ended their three-game losing streak with a victory over the Sixers on Thursday.
— Rod Beard