Detroit Pistons happy to see Killian Hayes’ aggression after move to bench

Detroit Free Press

MINNEAPOLIS — With less than two minutes left Sunday and the Detroit Pistons trailing the Minnesota Timberwolves by 10 points, coach Dwane Casey called a play. It isn’t clear what the play was, because Killian Hayes took matters into his own hands.

Hayes, seeing a lane to the basket, rejected a screen from Isaiah Stewart, drove left and dunked after passing two Minnesota Timberwolves. It was his fifth basket of the fourth quarter and fourth score in the paint. Regardless of the designed play, Hayes made the correct read.

It was a play Hayes might not have completed earlier in the season. Now in his second season, Hayes’ growth has been uneven. He has consistently been one of Detroit’s best defenders and ball-handlers but often unable to find his rhythm as a scorer. But since moving to the bench two weeks ago, he’s finding some comfort. The ball is in his hands more, and he has been able to dictate his own pace as a result.

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Sunday’s 118-105 loss to the ‘Wolves was one of Hayes’ best games of the season. He finished with 10 points and eight assists, while scoring all of his points in the final period. The ‘Wolves continually conceded space, and Hayes’ aggression led to a steady stream of drives to the rim.

“I was really proud of him,” Casey said after the game. “I’m on him as hard as anybody on the team, every film session. Pushing him to still growing, and he is, right in front of our eyes. He’s so tired of me getting on his behind that he’s picking it up and going, and he’s growing and making those decisions. I called one play and the whole lane opened up, and he just broke off and went and got a dunk. Those are the kinds of basketball instincts that he’s playing with right now in the game, when a month ago he probably wouldn’t have done that.”

Part of Hayes’ issue on offense is that, while his passing is solid, he hasn’t established a reliable shot. He’s shooting just 28% from 3-point range and doesn’t consistently attack the rim. He’s knocking down 80.9% of his free throw attempts, but is attempting just over one per game. Inside the arc, Hayes prefers to take shots from short midrange.

The coaching staff challenged Hayes to get all the way to the rim last season. Doing so would give Hayes more trips to the line and force the defense to collapse, opening up outside shots for his teammates. Hayes is good at driving and kicking the ball out, but that has little effect when defenders don’t have to crash inside.

Hayes took 21% of his shots at the rim during his 33 games as a starter, according to the website Cleaning The Glass. During his seven games on the bench entering Sunday, that increased to 40% — which ranks in the 86th percentile among point guards in that span. He made 60% of those shots at the rim during that stretch as well, ranking in the 57th percentile.

“I know I’m at my best when I can go into the paint and either finish or kick out,” Hayes said. “My goal is to get to the paint anywhere I can. By watching film with coach Jerome (Allen), watching film with the coaches just to figure out which plays, which part of the game I can go and do that. Just a learning curve that you work on every day in practice. It’s physical, but a lot of mental as well.”

Hayes’ efficiency stats will be improved by Sunday’s performance, as he made all four of his shots in the paint. The coaching staff hoped that by moving Hayes to the bench, he would respond by playing with more aggression. The move has paid off thus far.

Despite being in his second season, Hayes has only played 67 NBA games — only 26 more than rookie Cade Cunningham. It’s a point Casey reiterates often, and it’s why the Pistons have been patient with their young point guard. Even while coming off of the bench, Hayes has closed multiple games in the last two weeks. Sunday was one of his best fourth quarters.

“He uses his size to his ability, and it’s a mismatch for a lot of guards because he’s about 6-5, and he’s strong,” Saddiq Bey said. “It’s good to see him get aggressive down the stretch and throughout the game. He’s definitely making the most out of his opportunity.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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