LOS ANGELES — Killian Hayes‘ sprained left thumb was visibly ailing him. He winced in pain whenever his left hand made contact with a defender. It appeared to be affecting his game.
After he played 18 minutes during a Detroit Pistons loss to the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 19, the organization had a decision to make with its young point guard.
Hayes ended up missing four consecutive games, as the Pistons opted to rest him to give his thumb a chance to heal. That decision appears to be paying off.
Hayes returned to the starting lineup on Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers, and was one of Detroit’s better players. His thumb may not heal completely until he’s able to rest it for an extended period of time during the offseason. For now, the pain has been eased enough for him to play again.
“It feels good,” Hayes said after Sunday’s 110-106 loss at Staples Center. “For a couple of games, I kept getting hit on it. It was getting worse and worse. We decided it was better just to get the soreness out, and just come back feeling without any pain. Tonight it felt good.”
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Hayes has emerged as one of Detroit’s most versatile role players this season, and Sunday was a reminder of what he’s able to provide. He finished with six points and eight assists in 29 minutes, and was a key reason why the Pistons were able to cut a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to three with two seconds remaining.
He and Cade Cunningham checked in with 7:56 left to play, as Frank Jackson hit a trio of free throws to whittle the deficit to 14. Hayes dished five assists in the final period, and assisted on seven of Detroit’s final nine points. On a night where the Pistons committed 17 turnovers, Hayes was responsible for one.
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The Pistons’ offense has had a tendency to stagnate this season. While Hayes isn’t one to call his own number, his court vision and ball-handling can create shots for teammates. The Pistons dished 29 assists Sunday — their second-highest total of the season — and shot 39.4% from 3 — their best clip from outside since their win against the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 13. Hayes’ positive effect on the team was evident, especially after a week of cold offensive performances.
“Coach really talks about energy,” Hayes said. “First of all we’ve gotta bring energy every night to give ourselves a chance. If we bring energy and we make shots, we’re a hard team to beat. Lately we’ve been struggling a little bit but it’s a long season, man. We’ve gotta keep shooting and shots are going to fall.”
Beyond his playmaking, Hayes has been one of Detroit’s best perimeter defenders and shooters this season. He’s adept at moving his feet and using his hands to force turnovers (2.1 steals per 36 minutes), and he’s making 36.8% of his 3-pointers (14-for-38) in 15 games.
Sunday was his 41st NBA game or half a regular season. Injuries have made it tough for the No. 7 overall pick in 2020 to play a consistent stretch of games. He suffered a torn labrum in his hip last season, forcing him to miss almost two-thirds of his rookie campaign. A sprained ankle caused him to miss preseason and part of training camp, and he has missed five regular season games — a quarter of the schedule so far.
In his best moments this season, Hayes has showcased an all-around game that has enabled him to be tough for the Pistons to replace despite averaging 5.7 points per game.
Back in the lineup, the Pistons hope he can pick up where he left off.
“His growth is coming,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “Unfortunate that he got injured, and the same thing happened to him last year. He was starting and feeling his way. But then he had the sports hernia thing. This year was his thumb. It was good for him to take it off, he’s feeling much better now. We’ll see if he can jumpstart it to do it again. He was playing pretty good, especially defensively. He’s one of our better on-ball defenders, and that’s an area where his growth has been skyrocketing.”
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