LOS ANGELES — Before the Detroit Pistons hosted the Oklahoma City Thunder on Nov. 7, coach Dwane Casey pondered a question: How long of a leash should a young, developing player have?
The subject was third-year guard Killian Hayes, who had regressed offensively after spending much of the offseason working to improve his outside shooting mechanics. A career 26.8% 3-point shooter through his first two seasons, Hayes knew he needed to make more 3s to unlock his offensive game. At the time, Hayes was shooting 16.7% from 3 and a staggering 18.2% overall. The swagger he played with during preseason was gone. Something — anything — needed to be done to help him find his confidence.
The Pistons are still in the midst of a rebuild, and Casey reminded everyone in the media room of that. They have every incentive to help Hayes, the seventh pick of the 2020 draft, succeed. Until the Pistons − 3-14 and owners of the NBA’s worst record − have a roster capable of competing for a championship, they have time to let Hayes figure things out, he said.
“We’re here to develop the young man,” Casey said. “It’s his third year in the league, had some ups and downs but we have to give him every opportunity to succeed and work with him, teach him, because he is a young player in our league. We’re not talking about Carmelo Anthony, a Hall of Fame player. That’s where we are with not just Killian, but all of our players.
“We have to build what we’re trying to build. We don’t want to look back and say ‘well, we wish we were able to go more minutes to learn and make mistakes’ and that type of thing.”
It’s too early to say if Hayes has truly turned a corner on offense. But his season-best performance against the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, a 128-121 loss, continued his improved stretch of play. He tallied a season-high 18 points vs. the Lakers on 7-for-14 shooting, made a career-high four of six 3-point attempts, dished a season-high nine assists and didn’t commit a turnover in 35 minutes. He shook off Thursday’s 1-for-8 performance vs. the Clippers.
It was an encouraging display, and Casey’s strategy of giving Hayes additional time and space to find his comfort appears to be paying off.
Hayes, 21, has benefitted from having an increased role since starting point guard Cade Cunningham went out of the lineup. Cunningham has missed the past five games with left shin soreness and will remain out for a longer period of time with a potential stress fracture, allowing Hayes and rookie Jaden Ivey to seize bigger roles on the ball. Hayes has started four consecutive games after coming off the bench for his first 13. He’s averaging 28 minutes per game since Nov. 7 after playing 17.8 minutes per during his first 10.
Without Cunningham, the Pistons certainly hope Hayes − who will enter restricted free agency in 2024 if he doesn’t sign an extension before next season − will maintain his momentum. This is a big chance to secure his spot as the Pistons continue to build.
“Kill’s growing,” Casey said after Friday’s loss. “I thought defensively he was solid. I thought his 3-point shooting was a big boost for his confidence, because with Killian, the main thing with him is confidence. Now he knows he’s in the game, he knows it’s in the driver’s seat. It’s not like he’s looking over his shoulder. He’s playing with a lot of confidence, which is good to see.”
In his past seven games including his performance against the Thunder, Hayes is averaging 10.9 points, 4.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 turnovers, shooting 42.3% overall and making nine of his 23 3-pointers (39.1%).
It’s a dramatic improvement compared to Hayes’ first 10 games prior to Oklahoma City, during which he made three of 18 3s and averaged 2.7 points and 3.1 assists. His 3-point volume and accuracy have increased. He’s passing better. His defense remains sound. He has more closely resembled the player he was expected to be.
He and Ivey, who is mired in a slump and shooting 38.3% in his past five games, will try to keep the Pistons afloat as Cunningham mulls treatment options for his shin injury. Hayes said his budding chemistry with Ivey has been good.
“Jaden has it going with his speed, and he’s an incredible player,” Hayes said Friday. “Just trying to get that match, who brings it up, running different plays. We’ve got (Bojan Bogdanovic) who’s had a hot hand, Alec (Burks) is back with us playing great. It’s getting everybody back and just playing.”