SAN FRANCISCO — Drafting is an inexact science. It often takes years to determine who the best players in any particular class are.
Consider the 2013 NBA draft class, which saw Michael Carter-Williams win the Rookie of the Year voting, followed by and Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke. Carter-Williams’ rookie season was a flash in the pan, and he’s on his sixth team in nine seasons. Oladipo has played 88 games since the 2017-18 season due to injuries. And Burke, a former Michigan standout, has struggled to find playing time with the Dallas Mavericks’ bench this season.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert, the two best players of the 2013 draft by a significant margin, had unspectacular rookie seasons and needed several years to emerge into the stars they are today.
It’s why the Detroit Pistons have preached patience with Killian Hayes, who has only played 58 games in two seasons due to injuries. He has shown flashes of the toolset that led to Detroit selecting him seventh overall in 2020, but his career so far has been uneven. His on-ball defense and passing have often been above-average. His scoring is a work in progress.
With the benefit of hindsight, Hayes wouldn’t be the second point guard off of the board today (LaMelo Ball went third overall to Charlotte). That honor would go to Tyrese Haliburton, who earned All-Rookie first team honors last year and is having a strong sophomore season with the Sacramento Kings. Haliburton was considered to be a potential top-five pick leading up to draft night, but fell all the way to No. 12, due to concerns about his unorthodox shooting stroke. In a re-draft, Haliburton would likely go higher than seventh.
That’s not to say the Pistons would immediately swap Hayes for Haliburton or that they regret their selection. The organization has publicly maintained confidence in Hayes becoming the player they drafted him to be.
But as the Pistons prepare to face the Kings in Sacramento on Wednesday, it’s fair to ask — what does Hayes need to do to close the gap?
Numbers don’t tell the full story, but Haliburton’s are stronger. He’s averaging 13.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 46.7% overall and 42.9% from 3 on 4.8 attempts per game. He has settled in nicely as De’Aaron Fox’s running mate and is a versatile player who can score at all three levels and initiate offense.
Shooting efficiency has been Hayes’ biggest weakness: 34.7% overall and 30% from 3. Hayes began the season as one of Detroit’s best outside shooters, after working with Pistons senior adviser for player development and former Michigan head coach John Beilein over the summer to refine his shooting mechanics. His 3-point percentage has since slipped.
A sprained left thumb visibly ailed him through the first half of the season, and the Pistons sat him for four games to give it a chance to heal. Hayes shot 38.2% from 3 during his first 12 games this season, but is shooting just 23.3% in 21 games since. He’s also a poor finisher at the rim — though he’s made an effort to get to it more frequently during the last two weeks — and averages a free throw per game despite shooting nearly 85% at the line.
But there have been positives. Hayes has arguably been Detroit’s best on-ball defender this season. At 6 feet 5 and 195 pounds, he has a size and strength advantage over many opposing guards, and some wings. He moves his feet and utilizes angles well, and does a good job of using his hands to force ball-handlers to give up the ball and occasionally force turnovers. Hayes also has great court vision and has threaded some highlight passes this season. Those are hard things to teach but they come naturally to Hayes.
Hayes can improve as a shooter and scorer. But it’s the rest of his game is what gives the Pistons confidence. He still has strides to make as far as running a team, but there’s a reason why his spot in the starting lineup hasn’t been threatened. No one else on the roster — other than Cade Cunningham — combines his defense and playmaking.
“I’m not worried about Killian’s shooting,” Pistons head coach Dwane Casey said earlier this season. “I’m worried about him running the team. I thought he did a good job point guard-wise. His shooting’s gonna come. We make so much about it. There’s so many other areas in the game that he’s gotta master.”
Haliburton has exceeded expectations as a 12th pick, but the Pistons’ ongoing evaluation of Hayes will be made independent of that. Hayes was viewed as a project going into the draft, while Haliburton looked more NBA-ready after a standout season at Iowa State.
Casey has coached late-blooming point guards in the past. Kyle Lowry, who blossomed into stardom with the Toronto Raptors under Casey, needed six seasons to become a full-time starter in the NBA. Pistons great Chauncey Billups, the third overall pick in 1997, also needed several seasons to find his momentum.
It’s impossible to say if, or when, Hayes will find his. But Haliburton, who will miss Wednesday’s game due to COVID-19 protocols, has played 101 NBA games. Hayes, at 58 games, has yet to play a full season. There’s still time for the script to change.