Killian Hayes improved for the Detroit Pistons during his sophomore season.
His defense, already impressive as a rookie, was more consistent. He got significantly better at making shots at the rim. And he had a clean bill of health for most of the season, appearing in 66 games after a hip injury limited him to 26 during his first year.
But Hayes’ biggest change isn’t something that’s easily quantified on a stat sheet. His mental approach to the game — his aggression, his confidence and his comfort leading the offense — also improved.
Hayes, still the second-youngest player on the roster at 20 years old, has admitted that he’s prone to overthinking when he’s on the floor. The coaching staff and his teammates noticed a shift in him this season. He began to play more freer, and more in-control.
This offseason, Hayes is planning to keep things simple. Beyond continuing to hone his 3-point shooting, he’s also going to play a lot of pick-up basketball — something that he hasn’t done much of in his career. Hayes needs more reps, and having to earn his spot on the floor in a low-stakes setting could help.
“Troy (Weaver) said this as soon as we drafted, and I hope it’s not taken the wrong way. He had to get Americanized and get used to fighting to stay on the court,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said after the season ended. “You guys play pick-up. How hard do you have to play to stay on the court? If not, you wait until next, waiting three more games. He’s never had to go through that, and that’s not a knock on him. It’s just something a young man, 18, 19-year-old had to go through. He played on club teams in Europe that practiced three times a day, structured. He hasn’t had a chance to go out and spread his wings and do some of the things he can do.”
Hayes was born in Lakeland, Florida, but lived in Cholet, France, since his father, DeRon, started playing for LNB Pro A when Hayes was 1 year old. Killian grew up playing basketball for sports institutes and professional leagues. He didn’t have the typical experience of an American-born player. He never had to wait his turn.
It has taken time for Hayes to develop NBA-level confidence. A torn labrum in his hip caused him to miss most of his rookie season. He’s acknowledged that he paid too much attention to social media criticism during his time rehabbing and has since learned to tune it out. Still, a hand injury limited him early on this past season, and the coaching staff eventually moved him to the bench to give him more time with the ball in his hands.
After moving from the starting lineup Jan. 26, Hayes averaged 7.6 points, 4.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals on 42% overall shooting. During his final 14 games, his field goal percentage increased to 45.5%. He started seven of those 14 games, and the numbers are noisy as the Pistons, and many of the teams they played, were dealing with late-season injuries to multiple key players. But it’s still notable progress: Hayes shot 35.3% as a rookie and 34.3% before moving to the bench last season.
Hayes began playing to his strengths. He’s still a below-average outside shooter, but he shot 61% at the rim —in the 68th percentile among point guards, according to Cleaning The Glass, and significantly better than the 39% clip he registered as a rookie. As Hayes became more aggressive getting to the rim, his efficiency improved accordingly.
“What I have liked about Kill this past month or so, you can see in his game his mental has changed in terms of how aggressive he was down the stretch,” Cory Joseph said April 11. “He’s really starting to figure it out in terms of how to play in this league. He’s done a great job. Obviously he’s very talented — his passing ability, the size that he has to rebound and what he does on defense, he does those little things already which makes him a good player. The next stage is being aggressive, which we’ve seen him do these past couple of games. And then percentages and all that stuff will even out when you’ve got the right mindset. I think his mindset is getting there.”
Hayes may not ever become one of Detroit’s best scorers, but his above-average defense and playmaking have kept him on the floor thus far. He’s arguably the best passer on the team. He whips one-handed passes with velocity and accuracy. No one on the roster completes difficult passes with the ease Hayes does. Coupled with his stout perimeter defense, and he proved himself a versatile role player.
To thrive next to Cade Cunningham, Hayes knows he’ll need to be at least an average 3-point shooter next season. But he proved there’s another level he can get to as a player. And the hope is that after a summer proving his worth against other NBA players in non-NBA gyms, he’ll return next season with heightened confidence.
“He’s taught me some things that he can do,” Casey said. “I’m a big proponent of not having one-hand passes. But he’s proved to me he can do it, and he’s got some stuff to his game that he needs to go and play against other NBA players — length, size, they don’t give a crap who he is. They’re going to knock him on his behind. He needs to go through that along with getting in the gym, working on his shooting, in the weight room working on keeping in great condition. This is a big summer for him to do that, and I encourage that 100%, and I’m sure Troy does too.
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“Young players, it’s all about their confidence,” Weaver added. “He struggled early on because of his confidence, or lack thereof. As he continues to get his confidence, you can see more of his game. As he continues to grow his confidence, we’ll see more of his game. He needs to continue to work on his shooting, but as his confidence grows, everything else will. That’s what I’ve seen grow, is his confidence.”