During Dwane Casey’s post-practice media availability Thursday, he was posed a question — did we underestimate the difficulty of Killian Hayes’ transition to the NBA after spending his entire career in Europe?
Casey chuckled. Who is “we?”
“I’m glad you put that ‘we’ on it because I know for all point guards it is tough,” Casey said. “It’s just like bringing in a rookie quarterback. There’s so much to learn — the speed, the length, the timing, trying to execute what the team needs you to do. There’s so much to think about whether you’re from Mississippi, Kentucky, Europe, whatever it is, it’s tough.
“The good thing is there’s not a language barrier either, so that makes it a little easier. But there’s a lot of cultural approach coming in as a rookie. It’s a lot. I never underestimated that. Maybe other people did, but I knew. And he’s still not who he’s going to be. I knew it was going to be a huge transition.”
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Casey, well-versed in point guard development, has long preached patience for Hayes, who has had an uneven start to his Detroit Pistons career. His game is an interesting study in contrasts. Hayes is the best passer and best perimeter defender on the roster, but must become a reliable scorer.
But, in bits and pieces, Hayes is beginning to figure things out. Though he’s missed several games in March, he’s currently in one of the best stretches in his career. His playmaking and defensive versatility have long been evident, but his strides as a scorer illustrate why he was high on Pistons’ draft board two years ago.
“The more you go, you learn you can affect the game in different ways,” Hayes said. “Scoring, sometimes your shot don’t hit. That’s not my only role. I also play defense, so I focus on that.”
In his last six games, Hayes is averaging 9.5 points, 5.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.7 combined blocks and steals in about 28 minutes per game, shooting 45.8% overall and making 5 of 13 3-pointers. He’s shooting just 36.7% overall this season, so the improved efficiency is a positive sign that his behind-the-scenes skill development work is bearing fruit.
Thanks to injuries, the seventh pick of the 2020 draft has appeared in just 84 of the 146 games he’s been eligible to play in. That’s 57.5%. Detroit’s other two 2020 first-round picks, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey, have played 131 and 144 games, respectively.
Hayes’ lack of availability and offensive struggles have turned him into a polarizing prospect for some. But on his good nights, it’s evident that he can impact the game in ways that many of his teammates simply cannot. He whips accurate live-dribble passes with velocity, pushes the pace in transition and makes life uncomfortable for opposing ball-handlers with his defensive activity.
Standing 6-foot-5, Hayes is bigger and stronger than most point guards. And he’s learning how to make up for his lack of burst with physicality, taking significantly more shots in the paint since moving to the bench in January. His efficiency at the rim is also starting to pick up. In his last six games, he’s made 9 of 13 shots in the paint.
On Friday against the Washington Wizards, his first made shot was a layup after using his shoulder to bump Ish Smith out of the way. It was a simple play, but it showed that Hayes was aware of his strength advantage and knew to exploit that. He’s embraced contact this season, to the delight of the coaching staff.
“You gotta have a plan when you go in there,” Casey said. “You gotta have a plan. You can’t go in and just make up your mind. Killian has gotten better at having a plan once he goes in there. Now he’s getting to the free-throw line, now he’s shoulder-hitting, or if they’re really on him and really packing the paint, he’s doing a good job of kicking it out. That’s another area of growth he’s made from that standpoint from what you’re talking about.
“And also too, he’s learning to use his body. He’s learning to make his floaters where he can get to them. Last year he was shooting floaters from the free-throw line. Now he’s shooting from the dots, which is a good shot from him. A bad floater is shooting it from the free-throw line. Getting used to all of that is part of his growth.”
Hayes had a 17-game stretch from January to early March where he made just 2 of 28 3-pointers. Casey noted Hayes needs to shoot 1,000 3-pointers a day this offseason if he wants to be great.
Knocking down five of his last 13 attempts is an improvement, but his goal next season should be to hit a high percentage on high volume as well.
Hayes’ development will continue to be a work in progress, but he has a strong base to build from. He’s regularly closed games for the Pistons during their recent run of improved play, including the entirety of their last three fourth quarters. Teammates move along the perimeter with anticipation, knowing he can instinctually find them and deliver on-target passes.
Making more shots has made it easier for the coaching staff to play him for long stretches. But there’s still upside he’s yet to tap into.
“A lot of his passes and plays are instinctive,” Casey said. “That’s what attracted us to him. Hopefully, he does know because we go through it in practice, where guys are located, where they are, for him to be comfortable to use his instincts. A little bit of both, but most of it is his DNA. He’s a natural point guard. He sees the floor.”
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