Killian Hayes’ scoring surge for Detroit Pistons: What it means and why it matters

Detroit Free Press

When dissecting Killian Hayes’ resurgent third season, you have to divide it into two parts. During his first 11 games, the Detroit Pistons’ third-year guard looked listless and uncertain. Most of his shots clanked, and his trusty playmaking wasn’t quite as steady as usual.

His past 13 games have been an entirely different story. Hayes, 21, has emerged as one of the Pistons’ most well-rounded, reliable players. He’s shooting with confidence, passing well without turning it over and is further solidifying himself as the team’s best perimeter defender. As Cade Cunningham mulls his options for a likely stress fracture in his left shin that could end his season, Hayes has stepped up and is showing why the Pistons drafted him seventh overall in 2020.

Hayes’ splits per-100 possessions, via NBA.com, tell the story:

  • First 11 games, per 100: 7.7 points, 8.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 turnovers, 1.7 steals, 1 block, 20% shooting (14.5 attempts), 16.7% from 3 (4.4 attempts), 71.4% on free throws (1.7 attempts).
  • Past 13 games, per 100: 20.1 points, 9.7 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 2.9 turnovers, 2.4 steals, 0.8 blocks, 44.4% shooting (18.4 attempts), 37.5% from 3 (6.1 attempts), 91.7% on free throws (1.5 attempts).

It’s a night-and-day difference in his efficiency. He has been a good offensive player, knocking down 3s and midrange shots with consistency. He’s producing more than three assists for every turnover, a dramatic improvement compared to his first 11 games.

Hayes put together the best game of his career in a 131-125 overtime win against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday, finishing with 22 points on 10-for-13 shooting and eight assists. He scored or assisted Detroit’s final 10 points of the fourth quarter, and then sent the Mavericks home with a pair of dagger 3-pointers late in overtime.

“He’s just growing at the right pace, at the right time,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said after Thursday’s win. “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.”

Here are the numbers behind Hayes’ recent improved play.

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

Offseason work on 3-point shooting bearing fruit

Shooting the 3-ball has been Hayes’ biggest swing skill on offense since he entered the NBA. After shooting 26.8% from 3 through his first two seasons, he prioritized refining his shooting mechanics over the summer. He entered training camp with a cleaner motion and more consistent arc on his shot. After a cold start to the season, he has finally found a groove.

In his past 13 games, he has knocked down 38.7% of his 2.4 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game. His 37.5% clip from 3 ranks in the 71st percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass, firmly above average.

He has been particularly strong from above-the-arc, making 45% in his past 13 games. That ranks in the 87th percentile, among players such as Stephen Curry and Darius Garland, albeit on lower volume. Hayes isn’t doing anything notably different compared to early in the season. He’s just knocking more shots down. Players naturally go through hot and cold stretches over the course of a season, so it’s possible he needed time to adjust to his new shooting form in live action. He could also just be on a hot streak.

“Sometimes that’s how it is, you can’t get shots,” Hayes said after Thursday’s game. “That’s why you gotta stay focused, stay in the gym working on it, just trust in your work. That’s what I did, and they started falling. That’s the work I put in. Just never giving up, never settling for what I had.”

Midrange accuracy driving scoring surge

Hayes’ improved outside shooting has drawn headlines, but the bulk of his scoring has come from midrange. Specifically, his pull-up jumper has given him a go-to offensive move and propelled his confidence as a scorer.

Hayes is taking 3.3 midrange jumpers per game this season and making 46.2%. Both numbers have spiked during his scoring surge — his attempts have increased to 4.7 per game, and he’s hitting them at a scorching 52.5% clip. Defenders instinctually concede space in the lane, as midrange shots are preferable to layups. Hayes has been punishing opposing defenses for doing so, and did so repeatedly in the fourth quarter against the Mavericks on Thursday.

Hayes hit three pull-up midrange jumpers and assisted a pair of paint buckets to Marvin Bagley III in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, scoring or assisting on the team’s final 10 points in the period. He then hit a long pull-up 2-pointer at the beginning of overtime that was intended to be a 3-pointer.

“The midrange has always been a part of my game, and I just take what the defense gives me,”  Hayes said. “If they give me the midrange, I’m taking it. I feel very comfortable taking that shot.”

His midrange accuracy over the past 13 games is probably unsustainable — per Cleaning the Glass, he’s in the 94th percentile among guards on long midrange jumpers and in the 68th percentile for all midrange jumpers. But on the season, he has been an average shooter from midrange. Even if he doesn’t stay this accurate, he could shoot it well enough to justify his volume and make defenses reconsider their approach.

More:‘Blessing’ for Saddiq Bey to play after rare injury scare with Detroit Pistons

Inaccuracy at the rim can be worked around

Hayes’ touch at the rim, or lack thereof, has been an issue since his rookie season. He appeared to make a leap forward last season, making 61% of his shots (68th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass) there after shooting a paltry 41% at the rim during his first season.

This season, Hayes is shooting 39% at the rim — one of the worst marks in the league. Most of the guards below him, such as Seth Curry and Devonte’ Graham, are 3-point snipers. Even during Hayes’ 13-game surge, he’s shooting just 50% at the rim.

Shooting poorly at the rim isn’t a death kneel for guards. Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet has long been one of the NBA’s worst finishers. He makes up for it by hitting 3s with high volume and high accuracy, being a plus passer and pesky defender. The Pistons (6-18) can live with Hayes’ inefficiency at the rim if he continues to defend, pass and knock down 3s. Hayes is averaging just 7.9 points this season in 24 minutes per game.

And even though he has scored the ball well in recent weeks, the Pistons aren’t pressuring him to continue to do that, either. Casey wants him to continue to be a high-level “quarterback,” which the roster lacks with Cunningham in street clothes.

“If Killian defends the way he defends, quarterbacks the team and makes the right read and then secondarily makes shots, that’s the last thing on the list because we have so many players that need to help and Killian is one of our best pick-and-roll players, making decisions, making reads,” Casey said. “He did those three simple things tonight for us.”

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