Killian Hayes is not a bust. But the clock is ticking in third season with Detroit Pistons

Detroit Free Press

LAS VEGAS — It’s too soon to give up on Killian Hayes. But the Detroit Pistons’ third-year point guard is running out of time.

He’ll have to show more this season than he did during his Summer League debut on Thursday against Portland — and he can. The key for him is that he does not give up on himself.

Take his jump shot. His form is fine; his conviction when he releases it is not. If he doesn’t find consistent belief in that area, he can forget a steady spot in the Pistons’ rotation, or in anyone’s rotation, for that matter.

Hayes doesn’t have to shoot like Klay Thompson — or even Saddiq Bey — because his defense and passing skills will keep him in the league with even a baseline 3-point shooting percentage of, say, 32%. But it’s hard to see a future — or a fit — with the Pistons’ roster if he can’t improve on last season’s 26.3% mark on 3s.

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Cade Cunningham needs floor spacers on the wings. Shooting is one way to space the floor; speed is another. Right now, Hayes possesses neither.

And since players can’t change their DNA — there are only so many players built like Jaden Ivey — skill development is critical. It’s not just physical skill, however. Hayes could shoot 10,000 jumpers a day in the gym; if he doesn’t fire away in the game with conviction, it won’t matter.

The hesitation was still there against Portland. He knocked down one 3-pointer, and it looked good, rotation and all. Yet he passed up other open looks and dithered on a couple of others.

Beyond the hesitancy from deep, Hayes desperately needs more conviction finishing around the rim. He has a tendency to float — or fade away — from defenders when they rise to challenge his shot. When he attacks with intensity, he can finish. He showed that last season.

In fact, if you cut a clip of his highlights from a season ago, he looks like a fine NBA player, and a valuable one at that. Guards that come off the bench and engage defensively, see the floor and make a few plays offensively are worth millions, in their pocketbooks and in their teams’ winning percentages.

Then again, that’s true for for most of the players in the league. Everyone has talent. The degree varies, of course. What separates players is often belief.

Belief is Hayes’ most daunting challenge. Injuries his rookie season made the quest even more challenging. So did the cultural jump from France to the U.S.

Body language is an issue. What registered as cool detachment overseas can read like nonchalance here.

Or, worse, fear.

Not that Hayes is afraid. He is just young — 20 until July 27, if you were wondering. And if you are thinking, well, other soon-to-be 21-year-olds don’t struggle this way — Cunningham, for example? Remember: They are often the outliers.

And, so, I’ll say it again: it’s too soon to give up on Hayes. He’s played 92 games; that’s basically a full season, and then 10 more.

The Pistons aren’t ready to give up on him. The team sees the flashes, the moments, the passes, like the dimes he threw against Portland.

The staff sees the defense, too, and would love for Hayes to attack and shoot well enough to toss him out there with Cunningham and Ivey for stretches. This won’t be a consistent option, though, until Hayes sheds some of his cool for heat.

Until he learns how to own his space, a phrase Cunningham used Friday after practice to describe his own offseason goals. If Hayes can discover that mentality, it’s easy to imagine a three-headed menace at guard, versatile on both ends.

It’s a matter of swagger. Hayes doesn’t need to strut or howl or throw his fists in the air after every positive play, but he has to figure out how to carry himself in a way aligned with his talent.

Because he has some.

This is where Hayes must get to by the end of the upcoming season, to prove that he can be a reliable rotational player. That will never be enough for some who can’t get past his draft position of No. 7 overall.

I’d argue that’s shortsighted, especially considering how few difference-makers have emerged from the 2020 draft. Not every pick hits. Not every lottery pick hits. Sometimes solid value is just fine.

Hayes needs to remember this, too. Young players sometimes put extra pressure on themselves because of their draft spot and its inherent expectations.

Maybe that was still getting in his way Thursday, when he showed the passing and the defense and hit a 3-pointer and somehow still seemed invisible at times. Maybe by the time the season begins, and he’s had a month of practice with his fellow youngsters, he will have found comfort in his space on the floor.

It’s possible. It’s also possible that he takes the bounce of training camp into the season and establishes himself as a part of the future of this team.

He is in a league where players sometimes take until their mid-20s to reveal who they are. Such stories unfold every year.

The problem is, the Pistons don’t have three or four more seasons to wait. They have a potential superstar who needs certain skills around him.

For now, Hayes is on Cunningham’s timeline. It’s up to him to say how long he stays on it.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.     

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