Detroit Pistons took a chance bringing Killian Hayes off the bench. Here’s why it’s working

Detroit Free Press

When the Detroit Pistons’ coaching staff moved Killian Hayes to the bench on Jan. 23, it wasn’t to signal a lack of trust in their young point guard. It was an opportunity for continued growth.

Dwane Casey wanted the ball in Hayes’ hands more, and playing with the second unit gives him that chance. While Hayes and Cade Cunningham have thrived playing alongside each other this season, Hayes often settlef in the corner when Cunningham initiated the offense as the starting backcourt. Casey also hoped that the move would spark more aggression in the second-year guard.

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Five weeks later, Hayes has shown subtle signs of improvement. He’s attacking the rim more. His defense has remained stout. He’s one of Detroit’s best all-around playmakers. And even though he’s starting games, he has been finishing them.

Hayes played the final 17 minutes of Sunday’s 127-126 overtime win against the Charlotte Hornets, and the final 12 minutes of Tuesday’s 116-113 loss to the Washington Wizards. He has been a fixture in Casey’s end-of-game rotations. And while Hayes hasn’t fully supplanted Joseph as Detroit’s preferred point guard at the end of games, the gamble to bring Hayes off of the bench has largely been a positive for both Hayes and the Pistons.

“Him going to the bench was never anything about mistrust,” Casey said after Tuesday’s loss. “It was about him fitting in with the second unit. He’s still going to be a part of our core. I think his decisions were good tonight. His defense was decent. Keeping Ish Smith in front of him is not easy. This is what this is about, for him growing. Cory hasn’t done anything wrong, but it’s about Killian growing. I said before the game it may be fluid. One night we may go with Cory in that situation, or another player. But I like the way Killian is handling himself. He’s being aggressive, attacking the paint.”

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During his 17 games off of the bench this season, Hayes is averaging 5.9 points, 5.2 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 combined blocks and steals in 22.5 minutes per game. He’s shooting 40% from the floor in that span — an improvement from his overall season mark of 36.1% — largely due to a revamped shot profile.

The biggest change for Hayes is the frequency of which he’s attacked the rim. In his 16 games leading up to Tuesday, Hayes took 38% of his shots at the rim since moving to the bench, ranking in the 88th percentile among point guards according to Cleaning The Glass. As a starter, he only took 22% of his shots at the rim, ranking in the 42nd percentile.

He’s a below-average finisher as both a starter and a reserve, but his increased aggression has also awarded him more trips to the line. Since coming off of the bench, he’s drawing fouls on 9.1% of his shot attempts, an above-average mark for a point guard. Prior to Jan. 23, he drew fouls on 6.3% of his attempts — ranking in the 35th percentile.

Hayes’ overall offensive game is still a work-in-progress, but his increased aggression toward the basket has helped him improve as a playmaker. He’s been dishing more assists since moving to the bench, and he’s starting to understand there’s a positive correlation between challenging the defense at the rim and creating easier shots for his teammates.

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An example of such a play happened with less than five minutes to play on Tuesday. Hayes saw that Kelly Olynyk had a mismatch in the post with Wizards point guard Raul Neto. Hayes made his defender, Anthony Gill, commit by driving his body into him, and worked his way to the rim until he was able to dump off an easy pass to Olynyk, who finished the layup through contact and completed the three-point play.

“His playmaking ability is what really opens up things for us,” Cunningham said. “He’s easy to play with, and having him running the second unit gives him a little bit of freedom to play through mistakes, and just be free and play. That’s been huge for him. He does so many things for us that don’t appear on the stat sheet, that maybe just a regular fan that’s just watching the game, the flow of the game, they might not see. He makes a lot of plays for us that we talk about a lot. A lot of points of emphasis that he’s consistent with. Kill is still growing and he’s getting better and better.”

In addition to improving his shooting percentage at the rim, Hayes must become a more consistent 3-point shooter. He’s only knocking down 25.8% of his attempts this season, and that’s slumped to just 13.8% since moving to the bench. Outside shooting was a major focus of Hayes’ offseason last year, but he hasn’t translated to live action yet.

“His growth is going to be determined by his 3-point shooting, how much he improves his 3-point shooting throughout the summer,” Casey said. “He should get about 1,000 shots a day if he wants to be great in his league. That’s going to be his charge, is being able to knock that down especially playing off-ball with Cade out there. That’s going to be so, so important for his next step in his career.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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