Detroit Pistons’ Killian Hayes adapting to bench: I ‘have the ball … a little more’

Detroit Free Press

There was always going to be a feeling-out process for getting Killian Hayes and Cade Cunningham acclimated to each other. Playing multiple ball-handlers together isn’t a novel concept, particularly in today’s NBA. But Cunningham is a rookie, and Hayes might as well be one given how his rookie season of 2020-21 was shortened by the pandemic and injuries.

It’s why the Detroit Pistons opted to move Hayes to the bench earlier this week, after he returned from a two-game absence caused by a minor hip injury. Cunningham has found his rhythm, as his 34-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist, four-block performance against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday attests to. Hayes has not. While his passing and defense are strong, he hasn’t found his scoring groove. When he plays next to Cunningham, he often ends up in the corner to space the floor.

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Hayes has had the ball in his hands more in his new bench role, and the coaching staff sees upside in playing Cunningham next to veteran Cory Joseph. Hayes has looked more comfortable this week while still playing significant fourth-quarter minutes. So far, so good.

“We talked about it with coach,” Hayes said after Detroit’s 119-103 loss to the Orlando Magic on Friday. “I like it. I get to be the point guard a little bit, have the ball in my hands a little more with the second unit. Just trying to bring energy and be more vocal with the second unit coming in, and also whenever I play with Cade, just give him help at the point guard position.”

It’s a change for Hayes, who started from Day 1 as a rookie and regained his spot in the starting lineup not long after recovering from a torn labrum in his right hip. The Pistons initially communicated that Hayes’ experience in Europe prepared him well for the NBA. His learning curve has been a little bit longer than initially expected, but the team is staying patient with his development.

He entered Friday averaging 6.2 points, 3.8 assists and 1.2 steals in 25.6 minutes per game while shooting 34.5% overall and 29.9% from 3. Hayes has consistently been one of Detroit’s best passers, defenders and ball-handlers this season. Improving his efficiency is a major step in his development.

The coaching staff saw upside in pairing Cunningham with Hayes early in the season, as Cunningham was returning from an ankle injury. But plans change, and Dwane Casey wants to see what Hayes can do as a primary ball-handler now. The early signs have been positive.

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“The reasoning for that at first was Cade was just getting back, didn’t have a training camp,” Casey said after Thursday’s practice. “Just really felt like he needed another ball handler out there with him. Also too, the way Cory has been playing has been great. Also gives Killian an opportunity to be the primary ballhandler with the second unit and also the third ballhandler or second ballhandler with the first unit toward the end of the game. He’s a big kid, he can guard a lot of 3s, a lot of 2s. So it gives us an opportunity to play a three-guard lineup.”

On Friday, Hayes had a good all-around game, finishing with 11 points, six assists and six rebounds in 24 minutes. He attempted six free throws, a career high, and was a key part of a second-quarter run that cut a 20-point deficit to seven. Just as in his previous two games coming off of the bench, he had extended stretches running the show by himself.

He scored six points and dished out eight assists against the Nuggets on Tuesday, and finished with eight points, five assists and a pair of 3-pointers in Denver on Sunday. The latter performance saw Hayes tally nearly all of his stats during a close fourth quarter against the Western Conference contender, while playing next to Cunningham and Joseph.

“I think he’s more relaxed,” Casey said. “He plays with a little more confidence, a little bit more, he’s in control moreso to speak. Not trying to figure out, ‘Is Cade handling it or am I handling it?’ Cory is more experienced in doing that and more relaxed in doing that. That’s why I feel like, right now, that’s a good fit. Cade’s doing an excellent job of picking his spots and understanding when to go, when to let Cory handle it and they have a little thing going.

“I like the way he’s playing now. He’s comfortable. Defensively, he’s still defending well. We’ll look at this rotation and experiment with this for the time being.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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