Killian Hayes’ sudden development paying dividends for Detroit Pistons

Detroit Free Press

NBA player development is rarely linear, with some clicking immediately but the majority becoming productive nightly contributors in fits and starts.

That’s certainly been true for the Detroit Pistons’ young roster. Third-year players Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart have been productive but have also struggled to adapt to new roles. Cade Cunningham took time to get going last season, and a shin injury could end his second season early. Despite the solid starts by rookies Jalen Duren and Jaden Ivey, there have been plenty of reminders they’re barely a quarter of the way into their first pro seasons.

But no Piston’s growth curve has been as non-linear as Killian Hayes’. And that made his performance on Thursday more special.

Hayes put together the best game of his career, scoring 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to power the Pistons to a 131-125 win over the Dallas Mavericks. He got there on 10-for-13 shooting and also dished out eight assists.

ABOUT LAST NIGHT:Hayes leads Pistons to overtime victory over Mavericks

INJURY UPDATE:What’s the deal with Cade Cunningham’s shin injury? What we know about Pistons PG

He did so on a night where the Pistons were in the national spotlight: the only game on the schedule, and broadcast on NBA TV. And thus NBA Twitter dissected his breakout performance in real time, and fans united to cheer for his turnaround. It was the latest in what’s been three weeks of career-redefining performances for the young guard.

Hayes’ back-to-back 3-pointers in the final 75 seconds won the game for Detroit. He hit a pull-up 3 with 1:15 on the clock to give Detroit a 128-125 advantage, and followed it with a side-step 3 a possession later to clinch the win. It was a great highlight for a player who experienced more than a few lowlights over his first two seasons.

“It feels good to finally get on the side where things start working for you,” Hayes said. “Just gotta keep working. I put in a lot of work. I have the trust from coach, all my teammates, they’re always pushing me every day. It feels good.”

The spotlight has been on Hayes since the Pistons drafted him seventh overall in 2020. He was the first player drafted by general manager Troy Weaver — which made his struggles stand out more than most non top-three picks. A torn labrum limited him to 26 games as a rookie. He mostly stayed healthy last season, playing 66 games, but his strengths as a passer and defender were overshadowed by his shooting issues: During Hayes’ first two seasons, he shot 37.4% overall and 26.8% from 3.

This season, however, Hayes has been a different player since mid-November. He spent the offseason overhauling his shot mechanics, and that work has finally begun to show. Over his past 13 games, he’s averaging 12.1 points, 5.8 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 44.4% overall and 37.5% from 3. And his performance against Dallas encapsulated all of the strides he’s made in recent weeks, as the Pistons have leaned on him while Cunningham mulls surgery for his shin.

Hayes scored or assisted on 10 straight points in the fourth quarter to power a 14-5 run that gave them a 117-109 lead with 1:47 remaining. The run included two assists from Hayes to Marvin Bagley III — including a bounce pass that led to a dunk and capped the run — and three pull-up midrange jumpers. He also got the Pistons on the board early in overtime with a pull-up long midrange jumper that was intended to be a 3. His foot was on the line, but that miscue ultimately didn’t matter.

“The guy I’m proud of is Killian Hayes,” coach Dwane Casey said after the game. “He made some big shots, big plays, big passes. Defensively, he was active in our blitzes. Really proud of the way he played and bounced back. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

His recent play is virtually the opposite of his first 11 games, during which he shot 20% overall and 16.7% from 3. He’s visibly more confident and thriving with the ball in his hands. He was Detroit’s go-to player down the stretch on Thursday.

“He’s more settled,” Stewart said. “When I see a difference between then and now, obviously you mention confidence but he believes he’s that kinda player. He hit some big shots tonight, and it was great to see.”

The coaching staff has made a point not to pressure Hayes into prioritizing his offense over the other parts of his game. With Cunningham out, they still need Hayes to play to his strengths. He’s the best playmaker on the roster, and his 5.8 assists a game (with just 1.8 turnovers) during his strong 13-game stretch underscores how good he is at moving the ball. The Pistons need that’ Thursday, he didn’t let his scoring distract him from creating for others.

But getting more consistent scoring from Hayes does matter. It matters for his confidence and overall growth, and for the Pistons’ ability to close out tough games. Shooting better will enable him to thrive alongside Cunningham, when he returns, and Ivey. It forces defenses to account for him, which creates plays for others.

Hayes showed Thursday he can create offense in other ways. He darted from the corner to the rim midway through the second quarter, and Bojan Bogdanovic found him for an easy layup that broke a 48-48 tie.

“He’s a great cutter off the ball,” Casey said. “When (Bogdanovic) has the ball, the ball’s on the weakside, in the post or whatever, he is an excellent cutter. He’s got so many skills other than shooting. Everybody is laser-focused on him shooting, and that’s probably third on the list for me. But we’ll take it. If he’s open, I told him he has the green light to shoot it.”

It took a while, but Hayes is finally finding his comfort level in the NBA. It helped the Pistons pick up their sixth win of the season — and third win in six games.

“He’s just growing at the right pace, at the right time,” Casey added. “He’s not growing on somebody else’s watch. He’s growing at his pace, his speed. That’s what young players do. Everybody wants him to be that 10-year vet. What is he, Year 3? That’s why it’s not a surprise to me. We just have to be patient. Unfortunately, this league is not full of patience, it’s winning games. But he is growing in front of our eyes.”

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