Detroit Pistons mailbag: What does Killian Hayes’ breakout mean for the future?

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons through 29 games own the NBA’s worst record at 7-22. They are well out of the play-in tournament race, and though there have been signs of growth, the franchise is in the midst of another long, rebuilding season.

Naturally, fans are starting to look toward the future.

This week’s mailbag answers questions on Killian Hayes’ breakout, long-term concerns involving the young guard trio, the 2023 NBA draft, trade deadline and more. We’re no closer to knowing if or when Cade Cunningham will undergo surgery for a stress fracture in his left shin. So let’s save the Cunningham questions for another time. We’ll have more clarity once he makes a final decision on his treatment.

If Killian keeps this up, do you see any possibility of him starting next to Cade over Ivey? I think he’s best with the ball in his hands, so I’d prefer him run backup point… but he’s been clearly (and shockingly) better than Jaden, and I’m afraid Casey would put him back at SG — @MatthewCrowe313

It could be more than a year before coach Dwane Casey has to make a decision here, as Cunningham is considering surgery that could end his season. Killian Hayes and Jaden Ivey have more than half of the season remaining to audition to keep their starting roles once Cunningham does return. My belief is the decision will be less about which player is performing better, and more about which player fits next to Cunningham better.

I think Hayes has made a convincing argument he deserves to start. Other than Bojan Bogdanovic, Hayes has arguably been the team’s best player over the past month. And his past 12 days — featuring a game-winning stepback 3-pointers against the Dallas Mavericks in overtime, and a 17-point, 12-assist performance in a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans — has been the best stretch of his career.

He has been a floor-raiser for the Pistons, establishing himself as a credible 3-point and midrange shooter while maintaining his status as the best perimeter defender and passer on the roster. Hayes has never played with this much confidence.

But as Hayes has flourished during Cunningham’s absence, Ivey has struggled. The rookie’s efficiency has suffered since Cunningham played his last game Nov. 9, and he hasn’t brought enough as a defender or playmaker to make up for it. Ivey has played fewer than 30 NBA games, so his early struggles aren’t unexpected. But if the current pattern holds, it could prove more advantageous long-term to keep Ivey in the starting lineup with Cunningham, and allow Hayes to continue flourishing separate from Cunningham by having Hayes run the second unit.

OMARI SANKOFA II:What I like and dislike about Detroit Pistons one-third through NBA season

Do you think Killian will be a Piston next season? I’m a Killian enthusiast. I believe Casey has moments where he has a bit of a leash on him by taking him out for long periods of time. He should be playing 35 minutes plus every night. — @Bignort34

I believe so. The most likely outcomes for Hayes beyond this season are that he either signs an extension to secure his future in Detroit, or the Pistons let him enter restricted free agency in 2024 and let the market set his price. If he continues his strong play, it would be savvy for the Pistons to sign him to a reasonable extension that’ll tie him to the team until he enters his prime. But Hayes could decide to bet on himself and fetch a larger contract if he performs well in the 2023-24 season. It would carry risk, but Hayes will only be 22 years old next season, with plenty of growth ahead of him.

The bottom line is there’s little reason for the Pistons to part with Hayes anytime soon if he continues to perform the way he has this past month. But there are two hypothetical − and realistic − scenarios that could lead to Hayes’ departure: The Pistons decide to make a run at an All-Star this summer and include Hayes in a sign-and-trade deal, or the Pistons end up with the second overall pick, lock in on G League Ignite standout point guard Scoot Henderson and then trade Hayes to open room in their backcourt.

For now, those are two very big what-ifs. Even the best lottery odds wouldn’t be enough to guarantee the top-2 pick required to draft Henderson, and the Pistons will have the cap space and assets needed to facilitate a big trade without including Hayes. It’s hard to find point guards that are proficient at scoring, defending and running the offense. Hayes has started to do that, and if he continues, the Pistons will need a strong incentive to part with him.

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

If Pistons were at “ground zero” to start this season, where should we expect to see this team next season at this time? Will they actually be fit to “compete,” or will that just be talk as it has been so far? — @Pistons_Nation1

The Pistons are in a great position to make a leap next season. Their recent draft picks will all be a year more experienced, and most of their key veterans — Bogdanovic, Burks, Marvin Bagley III and Kevin Knox — will be under contract. They will also be among the league leaders in available cap space, positioning them to make a run at a proven stud or fortify their depth.

While the organization may want to see how Cunningham looks post-injury before setting expectations high, I think both the franchise and fans should expect a much more competitive team next season. In three years, general manager Troy Weaver has executed a full tear-down and rebuild with an eye toward the future. It usually takes years before a rebuild begins to bear fruit, assuming it happens. But the team must start winning eventually, and expectations should naturally rise as young players grow up and the team adds to the core.

Weaver will have every tool at his disposal to push the Pistons toward contention next summer. The team could also be helped by a weakening Eastern Conference. The Miami Heat, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls all have losing records and could be sellers at the trade deadline. The conference is still deep, but the Heat are 12-15 and occupy the 10th seed and final play-in spot. It could open the door for new blood to enter the race next season. The Pistons will try to make their case.

If the Pistons don’t win the Wembenyama sweepstakes and end up with the #2 pick in the draft. Which player fits Detroit’s projected roster makeup better; 6’2” PG Scoot Henderson of the G-League or 6’9” SF Brandon Miller from Alabama? — @KoolLove2643

Unless Brandon Miller emerges as a generational prospect in the seven months before June’s draft, the answer here will always be Scoot Henderson. The 18-year-old in six games this season in the G League is averaging 21.2 points on 48.5% overall shooting and 8-for-17 from 3, with 5.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game (that includes leaving a Nov. 18 game after nine minutes with a nose injury). His game resembles prime John Wall, if Wall was a more capable shooter and had Kyrie Irving’s handles. From Day 1, Henderson will be one of the NBA’s best ball-handlers and playmakers. The Pistons aren’t good enough to worry about fit.

The gulf between Henderson and Miller is likely to be large. There is a lot to like about Miller’s game. He’s a 6-foot-9 wing averaging 17.9 points and 8.4 rebounds for 10th-ranked Alabama. Miller is one of the best shooters in the country, knocking down 42.9% of his seven 3-point attempts per game, and has the tools and effort to become a versatile defender. But he’s very inefficient inside the arc and is already 20 years old. That caps his upside compared to Henderson (6-2, 195), who is younger and playing against tougher competition.

Miller is a great prospect and will likely be on the Pistons’ radar if they end up with a pick outside the top two. But at this stage, he isn’t viewed as an instant franchise-changer like Henderson is.

More:If things go south for Detroit Pistons, Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes would soften blow

W/a healthy cade, a 2ndYR Ivey and an “improving” Killian – Is Scoot the pick if the Pistons land #2? He IS the consensus #2, but that would be 4 PG/SG players drafted in the Troy era. I know you draft based on talent when this far away from being good, but that’s an issue, no? @IlirLajcaj

The Pistons would have a roster crunch to navigate if they were to end up with the No. 2 pick. Their past three top lottery picks — Ivey, Cunningham and Hayes — all need the ball in their hands to thrive. There likely wouldn’t be enough oxygen in the room for a fourth young point guard. But Henderson is a can’t-miss prospect, and none of Detroit’s young guards have emerged as superstars yet. They need to prioritize talent.

This is a two-player draft, with 7-foot-4 French phenom Victor Wembanyama occupying the top spot. In any other year, Henderson would be the No. 1 pick. Teenagers with his athleticism, ball-handing, shot creation and shooting ability don’t come around often. Henderson could be as transformational for the Pistons as Ja Morant has been for the Memphis Grizzlies.

That’s not to say Cunningham, Ivey and Hayes can’t and won’t be as great as Morant, an MVP candidate. But until they get to that point, the Pistons need to draft as though they’re starting from scratch. The gap between Henderson and whoever goes No. 3 is likely significant. There are other very talented prospects in this draft. Overtime Elite guard Amen Thompson, Villanova wing Cam Whitmore and Arkansas guard Nick Smith are all deserving top-6 picks. But they’re not Henderson, and passing on him would be a mistake.

Do you think the pistons are going to flip (Bojan Bogdanovic) for a quick profit or actually keep him long term? i kinda want to hold onto him but i see both sides. — @Deimos75

My hunch is Bogdanovic will be here through the end of this season, at least. His two-year contract extension six weeks ago is a pretty big tell the franchise holds him in high regard. And they should, because Bogdanovic has been fantastic. He’s averaging 21 points per game and shooting 50.8% overall and 43.7% from 3. He has been an asset in the locker room. Isaiah Stewart called him one of the smartest players he has been around. The Pistons don’t want to be a door mat this season, and flipping Bogdanovic to the first bidder would go against Weaver’s trade philosophy.

If Bogdanovic is dealt, it’ll be for a deal the Pistons couldn’t turn down. There were people in the front office who had a tough time saying goodbye to Kelly Olynyk when the big man was traded for Bogdanovic in September, as Olynyk was beloved by the organization. But Bogdanovic, who turns 34 in April, was a tier of player Detroit couldn’t say no to. The same logic will hold here.

SUNDAY’S GAME:Bojan Bogdanovic outdueled by Lakers’ LeBron James, Anthony Davis in Pistons’ 124-117 loss

We’re still two months from the Feb. 9 trade deadline, which is an eternity in NBA time. Things can change. But it’s tough to see a worthwhile deal materializing unless it brings the Pistons a superstar or valuable draft pick.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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