Detroit Pistons’ Killian Hayes proving the biggest key in developing talent is patience

Detroit Free Press

He’s a bust. The worst player in the NBA. No, the worst player ever who never should’ve been drafted and why is anyone taking a French player anyway? They don’t defend and they hate our freedoms and they’re only here to mock us.

This is where we were a month ago, wishing Detroit Pistons guard Killian Hayes would do the honorable thing and walk away since he was clearly washing out of the league.

Not quite Darko Milicic-level disappointment, but still, Hayes was the seventh pick in the 2020 NBA draft, and Tyrese Haliburton and Tyrese Maxey, two guards picked after Hayes, were hooping, and why didn’t Troy Weaver draft them and why can’t we have nice things in Detroit?

Yeah, there was Cade Cunningham, and he looked more than promising as a rookie and there was Isaiah Stewart learning how to shoot and there was Jaden Ivey, zipping down the court, a nice fit next to Cunningham, and there was Jalen Duren, another youngster making another statement that he belonged right away.

And all that was nice.

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Still, there was Hayes, missing 15 of his first 18 3-point attempts this season, missing most of his shots overall, missing swag, hanging his head on the way back to the bench, uncertain of when to pass and when to shoot and how to carry himself.

Admittedly, it had been easier to explain Hayes’ uneven play to start his career because he arrived during a pandemic and missed training camp and summer pick-up games and most of the regular season because of injury.

And then the franchise took the ball from his hands and gave it to Cunningham the next season, in 2021-22, and he had to adjust to that as he was trying to adjust to new surroundings and a new basketball culture and life as a 20-year-old 3,000 miles from home.


How about context?

MORE ON KILLIAN HAYES:Pistons point guard’s sudden development paying dividends

Hayes had shown elite, on-ball defensive potential in moments and high-level vision as a playmaker — again, in moments. What he hadn’t shown, until a month ago, until his minutes doubled because Cunningham got injured, was that he believed.

Oh, he said he had faith. He said he was working and that it would come. But he wasn’t saying it loudly, with his on-court presence, with his body language.

Now, look at him, practically howling after big makes.

Like he did, say, a week ago when he hit consecutive 3s to ice the Dallas Mavericks in the last minute-and-a-half of the game, and he nearly skipped and hopped back to the bench after his dagger forced a Dallas timeout.

Like he did when he sized up Jayson Tatum a couple weeks back, and he began dribbling between his legs to find his balance and crossed-up one of the best wing defenders in the world and pulled up for a you-can’t-stop-this mid-range jumper.

It wasn’t just that he showed no fear in the face of Tatum, or that he showed a tighter handle or even that he made the shot. It was how he dribbled. It was how he created space and rose up and fired, confidently, freely, forcefully.

In the month since that home loss to the Celtics — a relatively competitive game against one of the best offenses the league has ever seen — Hayes has been a different player. A new player. A player who is unafraid to call his own number no matter the defender.

Here’s what Stewart told reporters after the Pistons beat the Mavericks and Hayes hit the daggers and scored 22 points:

“He’s more settled. He believes he’s that kinda player.”

There it is again: belief. It’s everything in sports. Without it, talent doesn’t matter. And Hayes has talent. How much is still too early to say.

At the least, his play the last month has revealed a steady, rotational player. Yet there are stretches of games where he shows he could still be more.

Like last week in New Orleans, when the Pelicans looked ready to run the Pistons back to Detroit and Hayes started making mid-range pullups and started driving and whipping one-handed, left-handed, cross-court passes to open shooters.

LeBron-type passes. Luka-style passes.

This isn’t to argue Hayes is on their trajectory. Of course not. There are aspects of his game, though, that are tantalizing. And when he played as he did in New Orleans, it’s easy to see.

His effort that night didn’t lead to a win. But it kept the Pistons in the game, and it ultimately kept them from getting blown out. In a rebuilding year, that’s a kind of victory, too.

This is all still a small sample size, obviously. But the eye sees what it sees, and when the third-year guard took over parts of the game in the Big Easy it wasn’t an accident that the Pelicans’ television broadcast team couldn’t stop gushing.

It wasn’t just the play itself. It was the play in the context of where Hayes was in October, of where he was a year ago. The broadcasters couldn’t believe the improvement. They especially couldn’t believe the way he carried himself.

“He looks like a different player,” they said more than once.

That’s indisputable at this point. What that means for his future, for a future role with the Pistons, still needs to unfold. Cunningham will eventually be back. Ivey will get better. That’s three guards who all need the ball in their hands to thrive.

That’s a challenge. One Dwane Casey and Troy Weaver will have to figure out.

At minimum, though, Hayes has finally shown he belongs in this league, and that he may have been worth the No. 7 pick, and that it’s always risky to write off teenagers when they struggle as they adapt and try to navigate the adult world.

Patience is never easy in a rebuild, or in sports period. It’s almost always necessary.

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

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